I think everyone has read one of those books that in theory, should be great: it has an interesting concept, a good plot, a killer twist, skilful world-building if it’s sci-fi or fantasy… but for some reason, something about it just doesn’t click. Although it should be right up your street, it just doesn’t do it for you.
One of the biggest reasons I find for this when it happens is the characters: if they just aren’t convincing then how am I ever going to enjoy reading about them? Even in fantasy and sci-fi where a suspension of belief is required on behalf of the reader, you have to be able to believe the characters could exist in the universe of the story if you are going to care about them at all.
The last book I can remember reading where I felt the characters ruined a good story was Hugh Howey’s Wool: whilst for the most part I liked the heroine Juliette, Lukas (the ‘love interest’) as a character I felt was all over the place, and Juliette falling in love with a character like him seemed inconsistent with her own character.
These badly drawn characters can completely destroy a book for me, and so as someone who not only reads fiction but also writes it, I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes characters believable. Here’s what I came up with (and I’d love to know your thoughts!):
Characters must be non-stereotyped.
Stereotypes are by nature, flat and unrealistic. A stereotype is essentially a shortcut to convey a lot of information about a character in a short space of time, so the author doesn’t have to worry too much about character building. The result? Characters that make you roll your eyes in exasperation: another blonde, brainless American cheerleader? Another impossibly handsome stranger with a supernatural secret? Another fantasy damsel-in-distress? No one person in real life embodies a stereotype, and so neither should believable characters!
Characters must have realistic dialogue.
Characters who speak in full, grammatically correct English all the time? Youngsters who abbreviate every other word, so that they’re practically incomprehensible? Scottish people, who actually say ‘och aye the noo!’? All make a character less believable – it’s all far too ‘stylised’ and/or stereotyped. Now, I’m not saying authors should write dialogue how people actually speak, with every ‘erm’ and ‘um’ included, but if you can’t practically hear a character talking when you’re reading the book, then for me it’s not working.
Characters must have consistent personality traits.
Now I know characters develop throughout a novel or perhaps end up not being what they seem, and I love that! When someone you thought was an out-and-out villain shows a softer side or someone you thought was one of the good guys turns out to be corrupt and you just didn’t see it coming it really adds to the drama and makes the characters seem more complex and three-dimensional. But only if it’s believable. If the author plants hints here and there which you only really notice after the truth comes out it can be believable for a character to suddenly change, as they are just showing their true colours. However, if it seems like the author just suddenly decided to take the plot in a different direction and needed a character to completely change in order to do it then it can be jarring and incredibly off-putting.
Characters must have believable motivation.
Everyone wants something, whether that something is a day off work, a snack, kids or a huge lottery win (although who wouldn’t want that!), and characters should be no different. If Frodo didn’t desperately want to destroy the Ring and save the Shire (plus the rest of Middle Earth) from Sauron, then why would he trek all the way to Mordor? Not for a holiday, that’s for sure! And if Katniss didn’t love her sister then why would she volunteer to go into The Hunger Games in her place?
Often the biggest character motives are love, wealth or the pursuit of knowledge, but it really could be anything so long as it makes sense for that character. A selfless character, for example, would be motivated by the need to save others, whilst a greedy character will mainly be motivated by the desire to accumulate wealth or material possessions. However, if a character seemingly has no motivation, and there are no reasons behind their actions, then how are we supposed to believe in them? No one does anything for no reason, however subtle that reason is, and so in my opinion, neither should characters!
So, I’d love to know, what do you think makes characters believable? Do you agree with my ideas, or do you have any more of your own? And have you read any books recently with unconvincing characters?