building character

Creating Convincing Characters

Characters (like people) primarily define themselves by what they do, not by what they say. Action defines character.

Convincing characters have a belief system that drives their actions. Their belief system shapes how they perceive their world, how they perceive themselves and others.  In order for your characters to act with conviction, and to act convincingly they must act according to their belief systems.

Your characters will have varying degrees of self awareness about their beliefs – some will be self aware (but never completely so), and others will be in various stages of denial.  Also, no two characters (just as no two people) will share the same view of the facts.

In most cases  your character’s belief systems will change during the course of your story as your character develops and grows in response to outside forces.  Or, if you have a character who is incapable of self awareness, their belief systems will likely remain the same, as the people and circumstances around them change profoundly, precisely because your character is unable to change their belief system even in the face of compelling evidence that it is not viable.

Your characters’ belief systems can be conveyed through dialogue, gestures, quirks, idiosyncrasies, habits, and actions.

Here are two characters, Otis and Selma, in a truck:

Otis, you’re not as tall and handsome as you think you are, Selma thought, as she watched him mosey out of Garth’s Wild West Saddles n’ Such wearing a brand new Stetson and carrying a Saddles n’ Such paper bag. She leaned back into the wide, leather passenger seat of Otis’s shiny black pickup as he opened the door.

“Now that’s a belt buckle,” he said handing her the bag and hoisting himself into the driver’s seat.

When she didn’t react he took the buckle out and put it in her hand. She looked at the garish brass disk engraved with a bucking bronco and a big T.R.

“It’s big,” she said, testing it for heft, lowering and raising it in her palm. She wasn’t a good judge of weight, but thought it weighed close to a pound.

“She’s a beauty, ain’t she?” Otis started the engine, and ignoring the seat belt ‘ping ping ping’ warning, he backed the truck out of the parking space labeled ‘Sidewinders’.

“There’s no stoppin’ us now, darlin’ ’’ he said with his newly adopted cowboy twang, “We’re gonna rise to the top.”

Selma had heard this before, and turning her head toward the passenger side window she rolled her eyes. The Tumbleweed Rodeo, a volunteer committee that organized the annual ten day western themed amusement park, had made Otis a volunteer committee member. You’d think he’d been elected mayor.

“Gotta pick up my Friday and Saturday Rodeo clothes from the cleaners.” Otis checked his rear-view and maneuvered into Main Street traffic.

The committee wore matching shirts, jeans, Stetsons and rhinestone studded cowboy boots. A different get-up every night. Otis had to have his altered to accommodate his girth, which he had underestimated.

Ping ping ping.

“Your seatbelt.” Selma said.

“ Nice you still care about me, Sel.” Otis pulled the seat belt across his broad belly.


(for more about Otis and Selma go to electrical connection dialogue)

Now you try it: 

Think of two characters that you would like to work on, and put them in a situation where they must manage (and mismanage) news that could change their relationship.  Keep it simple to start – a brief interaction that involves just the two of them, reacting to the new development.

To keep it manageable, you might put your characters in a small, contained space – perhaps in a car or a truck, an elevator, a waiting room at the doctor’s office or perhaps a dressing room where you can focus on their movements and dialogue without worrying about other distractions. Think of incorporating an item that holds their focus for part of the time. Now have them react to ‘big news’.

It can help to limit your writing time to 10 minutes, and make the commitment to write without stopping to edit or review what you have written. This will help you to keep the process of generating material separate from the process of editing your material. Both are creative, but they can be limiting when done simultaneously.

When you have completed your Character Building exercise feel free to post it in the space provided below.