Creating Believable Characters – Andrew Perez

Frankenstein and God

Sometimes, when I read a story, whether it be published or not, I’m struck at times by strange incidents where the character does something, says something, that is off.  It takes a moment, but I realize that this character stopped being real.  He moved from being a character to a caricature, from 3D to 2D, and I discover that the author made a mistake in their crafting of the work.  They decided to be God rather than Dr. Frankenstein with their characters.

God made Man and Woman in a magical sweeping motion.  At first, their was nothing, and then suddenly these two creatures stood on the world, having at that moment been born and fully formed.  They went from nothing to everything, because God can do that kind of thing, it is his (or hers) stock in trade.  God makes everything whole at once, with a wave of the hand or magic song or dance or whatever.  While this works for God, it isn’t the best model for a writer to follow when making people come alive in their own worlds because the creation of the character went through no phase of questioning.  A writer makes a character, and puts that character to work in a story, doing something, but a story is a living thing, and sometimes things change.  Maybe an incident occurs, maybe someone has to die, maybe a new character is introduced, and none of these things were thought up in the beginning.  Suddenly, the writer has to figure out what this character, who was created as a whole and never put under questioning, will do when reacting to new stimuli, and here is where the old friend “cliché” jumps in with an assortment of ideas, some of which are okay but not really applicable, and pieces as put into place.  I’m sure you’ve read a story where something like this happens, and the character destroys that bubble of suspended disbelief, and you question the motives or actions of that character, because it seems inorganic, artificial, came out of no where.  A problem arose, and the writer had to figure out what to do, but didn’t know their own creation well enough to forge a convincing narrative.

Dr. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is a much better model to follow, not just because he was mad as a hatter (which everyone knows all good writers are).  Frankenstein wanted to create life from death, something outside the purview of human ability, and so had to study and examine what it would take to put together the body of a man and infuse that body with life.  He studied chemistry, science, and biology, and then put together the body using pieces from charnel houses and slaughterhouses, robbing graveyards and laboratories, and then put them together, piece by piece.  Finally, having figured out how, he breathed life into his creation, and then people died, but the theory is sound, and every writer should follow it.

Like Frankenstein, the writer needs to examine their character and figure out what makes them tick.  What are their fears and what are their loves?  What do they hate?  The attitudes and characteristics of the character are put together like a puzzle, but since the writer put the time into making the character from scratch, they know them backwards and forwards.  Now, the writer can introduce anything into their story, and the character’s reactions will be authentic, and thus the reader will believe the reality of it.  Emotional connection to the character will be stronger, because that reality also instills humanity.  It is a good thing to jump right in and get writing, and I recommend you do so, but take the time to put together your monster.  When that character is introduced to a new element, you will know exactly how that character should react, and that reaction will be authentic.  It may not be what the reader wants to happen, but it will be what needs happen.  A writer may say that a character “took on a life of their own,” that is when they become real, and the writer just reports their actions.

14 Comments:

  1. Mary Ann Bator-Gray

    I enjoyed this piece. While reading, I get a gut reaction to something and not know why. When I learn new facts about writing, I understand what bothered me. Things like: the point of view wasn’t clear, and characters doing things that aren’t logical or believable jab at my brain. Your article has given me more insight. Knowing too much lessens my reading experience because so many “no nos” are published, but anything that can improve my skills as a writer is appreciated. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for this

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  3. Drew,
    Great metaphor for writing here. Be Dr. Frankenstein. I like it lots.
    And your voice comes through so strongly in the piece.
    Thanks for writing it.

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