Written by Jennifer Fallon
Putting together believable characters is one of the challenges of writing good fiction. It is the hallmark of great fiction. And it gets down to flaws. You cannot have a character without flaws unless their very lack of flaws is their flaw and you use their flawlessness against them.
All characters need to be flawed in some way
Imagine how pissed off everyone else would be around a Mr Perfect. How annoyed, how intimidated. In very short order, they’d probably want to take him down… Oh, look… we have a plot brewing…
People are flawed and it is, more often than not, their flaws that define them, rather than their good qualities. There is nothing wrong with a hero having noble thoughts, but he should also have fears and worries. Characters without them are the unbelievable characters that just don’t work.
Most people do what they believe is the right thing, even when it’s wrong
What motivates a character is a vital component of characterization. That’s why revenge is such a popular plot device. It gives the heroine a reason to be doing what she’s doing. It’s also why so many inexperienced writers fall over in a heap mid story because there is no real reason for their evil dude to be doing what he’s doing.
The noble young goat-herder who turns out to be the prophesied lost prince might be avenging his village destroyed by the rampaging powers of evil (fair enough), but why are the powers of evil rampaging? Even evil overlords have their reasons.
This is what made Dr Evil so funny in the Austin Powers films. His motives were ridiculous. You laughed at him because of that (and Mini-me, of course.). Don’t make your foes just as laughable. Have a reason for their actions that makes sense.
Believable characters must be consistent
You can’t have your wimpy heroine turn into an ass-kicking ninja warrior in the second to last chapter without somewhere implying she has that capability (i.e. her part time job in high school was delivering pizza near the sewers where the Ninja Turtles hang out…that sort of thing).
Nor can you have your characters develop magical powers there has been no hint of in the past, just as they need them. I’m not saying you can’t have your character discover something within themselves under stress, but that’s different to suddenly discovering your hero can pick locks because you can’t think of any other way for him to escape the evil clutches of Lord Cesspot.
An earlier scene, however, where we see him picking the lock on his father’s liquor cabinet so he can party with his buddies… now that would establish he’s both a lock-pick and a bit of a rebel.
There should be a scene or an action that defines a character
Ask yourself this question: what is the one thing a character does that defines them?
Which brings me to Han Solo. You see, Han was a scoundrel. We all knew this long before Princess Leia worked it out. And we knew he was a scoundrel because in that bar on Tatooine, he shot first.
At that point, he’d been on screen for about 3 minutes. We knew he owned a ship. We knew he thought he was pretty hot shit. (And we knew he had no idea that a parsec is a measurement of distance, not time… but I digress).
And then he was threatened by Greedo, shot first, coolly flipped a coin to the barman and apologized for the mess on his way out.
Everything you ever needed to know about Han Solo was taken care of in those few minutes of screen time and everything he did afterward made sense. It’s also, incidentally, why people flipped out when George Lucas changed the scene in the re-release. He was trying to make Han noble; trying to claim he was shooting in self defense. Not the actions of a scoundrel at all.
With that one scene tweak he flat-lined Han Solo’s entire character arc from scoundrel to noble hero, because he made him noble from the start.
So, that’s all there is to it. Flawed, motivated, well defined and consistent. That’s all it takes, really, to get great, believable characters acting like real people.
Oh, and, if the occasion calls for it, shoot first.