To help the reader latch on to the emotional journey of the character, the writer makes the character’s goal personal, authentic, and emotionally rewarding. This being already discussed, we will now look at tips to make the characters credible.
The credibility of the character is the willingness of the reader to accept something as true to the character the writer created. For example, a character who is a workaholic can be expected to have a type A personality (organized, high achiever, ambitious). So if the writer mentions that a workaholic woman is also a daydreamer, it will nag the reader like grit in the eye. So here we will talk about how to create genuine characters.
P.S: Credibility is often confused with reality. That is not so.
Exhibit A–Fairy Tales
The reader will not question the credibility of Cinderella’s glass stilettos bearing her weight, but they will find it hard to accept her evil stepmom turning, without a cause, benevolent considering that she has been conniving throughout the narration. Similarly, even a real-life incident might look far-fetched if the character’s acts and traits are not backed by causes leading to it.
Here is a quick checklist for creating credible characters.
The back story gives a past to the character and thereby depth. The human mind is conditioned to distrust people with no history. Imagine a dear friend asking you to lend him some money. You would not think twice, because you have known him for years. But, if a recently joined colleague is trying to borrow some amount from you, you might hesitate because you don’t know his history enough (how true he is to his words) to predict the future (the possibility of returning the money). The same applies to storytelling. Past / History of the character bolsters the credibility of the character.
In the short story, A Temporary Matter by Jhumpa Lahiri, the narration covers 5 days in the life of a couple. But, the history (a miscarriage) looms large over them. The reader knows all is not well between them. So, when the wife lets her husband know she is leaving him, the reader finds it believable, inevitable, given the history. However, as discussed before, only history relevant to the story should be added skillfully. The information which does not have any bearing or impact on the story will only distract the reader.
Cause and Effect
The reason a character is behaving in a particular way adds dimension to the character, making it look credible. His socioeconomic status, his geographical location, his relationships–all shape his character. A girl leading a cocooned life is prone to be gullible. A boy who is homeless can be expected to be street smart. If the character traits are backed by reasoning, it becomes believable.
Norman Bates kills a woman who stays in his motel. Why would anyone kill a helpless stranger? It is against the very nature of human beings. But Norman Bates was emotionally abused as a child. He was taught that all women are whores. He was told that sex is sinful. Even murder can be backed (not justified) by reasoning. On a subtler note, Shoba of A Temporary Matter looks indifferent to her husband after the miscarriage. Shukumar tries to get her attention and tries vainly to distract her.
The reader knows he has dealt with the sudden death of his father. He is better equipped to deal with grief. But, Shoba is not. And as she was alone while she lost her baby, the loss struck her immensely. Maybe that is why she lost hope in their relationship. Maybe it is her way of dealing with grief. All these tiny details added skillfully by the writer add credibility to the character, both Shoba and Shukumar.
There are no perfect humans, and hence there is no perfect character. Flawed characters, not only make for an interesting read but also are easily relatable. And there lies its credibility. A wife uses powercuts as an excuse to pull her husband into a truth or dare game. In the course of events, she reveals that she wants to leave him. She can be seen as manipulative.
The husband is sickened, yet relieved, glad that he is not forced to take the ‘bad’ decision. He has waited for things to run downhill without proactively taking steps to amend the situation. He is, at 35 years of age, yet to grow a spine. These flaws of Shoba and Shukumar in A Temporary Matter make them as real as you and me. And that is why they are relatable.
More about character building in the next session. Meanwhile, please do comment your queries, disagreements, and tips to develop our writing.
Sarves (Sarveswari Saikrishna) writes because her brain won’t stop bullying her until she writes, whether she likes it or not. She tries her hand in all genres, one of her favorite being psychological horror. To her surprise, her stories have found their way into several anthologies published by Artoonsinn and Hive and literary magazines (TMYS, December 2020 issue). She has a few articles published in The Hindu to her credit.
She lives in Chennai and waits for the day when people would pay her to read her stories.