Building Believable Characters

I took a necessary mental health break (read: I was lazy), but now I’m back to my three-posts-per-week schedule. Unfortunately, my laziness extended to my novel-writing discipline, and I haven’t written squat in about three weeks. There’s no sense feeling guilty about it. I am a pre-published author, there’s no deadline hanging over my head, and my bad habits at this point in my career hurt no one but me (and maybe you, if you really missed my blog posts). After analyzing my lack of writing, I came to this conclusion: I was hesitant to write anything new because I didn’t know one of my main characters well enough to know what he’d do in the situation I put him in. What I wrote was somehow OFF, but I didn’t know why or how to fix it. That revelation sent me back to the basics of creating characters via a book on my resources shelf: Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon. It’s on sale, at the moment, if you want to zip over to and pick it up. Or stick around and read my blog for the next umpteen posts. Yep. I’m diving into a new series.

This book starts off in a rather strange place, in my opinion: naming your character. I rarely start with a name, but maybe there are writers out there who do. I’ve blogged before about names and the process of choosing a good one, so check the archives if you’re interested. I find naming my characters a fascinating process. I like looking up the meanings of names–I fact, I almost always choose a first name based on the meaning. Sometimes it’s a completely fitting name (a hero named Alex, which means “defender of man”) or it’s ironic (a hero named Melinda, which means “gentle,” who’s brash, head-strong, and self-rescuing). McCutcheon doesn’t spend enough pages on this fascinating part of the process, as it’s easy to write an entire BOOK on this subject, but all of this section is devoted to quoting famous authors and their tricks of the trade. 
The next section (they’re not numbered, for some reason…) is a lengthy character questionnaire for getting to know your character. I find it too burdensome. Do I really need to know what kind of car my hero drives? Maybe, unless he takes the bus everywhere or rides a broom or is stuck in space. Eye color/hair color might come in handy. I find myself scouring the Internet for photos of actors/singers/Facebook users to use as inspiration for my main characters. What grades he received in school? Military experience? Past occupations? These may or may not be important to his personality, but I find it kind of boring to sit and try to fill in the questionnaire on the fly. It’s more fun to make it up as I go (I’m a hard-core outliner, so little surprising things like these make writing fun). Then the questionnaire gets into more interesting things: introvert/extrovert; eccentricities; temperament; admirable traits; negative traits; bad habits; prejudices; pet peeves. These types of things could easily lead you to finding your character’s inner flaw, the fear or trait he must overcome before he can reach The Goal. I’d like to go more in-depth on this in a later post, so stay tuned. First I want to finish this questionnaire. It wants opinions on controversial subjects like abortion, the environment, homosexuality, etc. What are your hero’s fears, manias, physical afflictions, mental disturbances, hobbies, interests, favorite past-times? I once had a character who had a favorite movie, and it was brought up in the text, but only because there was a quote from the movie that increased tension in one part. Do I always know my hero’s favorite movie/TV show/book? Nope. Favorite meal, favorite book, sexual turn-ons and turn-offs, pet sayings, speaking style, philosophy of life… it goes on and on, page after page of in-depth questions designed to help you know your character better. You can fill in the entire thing, spending hours on it, but I find it’s too much. I pick and choose which questions to answer, and sometimes they lead to great insight.
The Character Thesaurus is the final section of the book, and it’s massive. Part 1 is Face and Body. Need to find the perfect wording for your hero’s complexion? It’s in the thesaurus. Don’t like the word blond? Find a different word in the thesaurus. Feel an overwhelming need to describe your hero’s nose but can’t think of the right term? Yep, it’s in chapter three. Hair styles, facial hair, head shapes, body types, you can find them all in this chapter. It’s a nice long list, and that’s all I want to say about it.
(Mighty Men and Monster Maker by Tomy, a brilliant toy from the ’70’s that mixed/matched heads, torsos and legs to create new characters. Photo courtesy of 
In my next several posts, I want to discuss Part 2 of the Character Thesaurus, which is Personality/Identity. It’s a full and satisfying chapter that has too much Good Stuff to gloss over it like I did the first three chapters. So stay tuned–same Bat time, same Bat channel.
Question: Do you find the character questionnaire’s useful, or are you like me and find them burdensome? Share your opinion in the comments section below. I love hearing from you! Seeing comments makes me think I’m not alone. Oh, and if you remember that Monster Maker toy, or had a similar one for girls, please tell me about it. I wanted the Barbie version when I was a child, but Santa never brought it to me. I probably would have been bored with it, anyway. I was always a tom-boy, never interested in fashion or accessorizing, so a power tool was probably a better choice of gift for me then. Now, too.

3 thoughts on “Building Believable Characters

  1. Welcome back. David Farland recommends McCutcheon in his new book, Million Dollar Outlines. Each author needs to find a balance between knowing his characters too well to allow them to be spontaneous and not knowing them well enough. The key is knowing key character elements that drive the story: what does the character want and what does she or he need? Character want is what is foremost in his mind. Example: Froddo wants to return the ring. That’s what drives his every thought and action. But characters also have needs. What Froddo needs are friends to help him on his journey because it’s too big a task to do on his own. Is what Froddo likes to eat or how he feels about abortion important? Clearly not. Start with those basics and build your character from there. It will save time and knowing what drives your character will enable you to describe his thoughts and actions at key moments in your story.

    • Thank you, Peter. Good points to keep in mind. I’ll admit, the character questionnaire did not help me figure out how my hero would respond in the situation I stuck him in. I need to dig deeper. Is that book Million Dollar Outlines about outlining, per chance?

      • i knew Farland from his Runelord series which I read years ago and it came highly recommended. it’s really about making your books saleable–not in a crass commercial sense, but based on an understanding of what moves readers to like certain books.

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