Create Believable Characters with Advice from a Novelist and a Former Actress
Caroline Leavitt and Gina Sorell
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, and Cruel Beautiful World. Her latest book is With or Without You. Gina Sorell is an actor-turned-author whose debut novel, Mothers and Other Strangers, is a National Reading Group Monthly, Great Group Reads, Refinery 29, Self Magazine, and Chapters Indigo Best for Bookclubs pick.
Caroline Leavitt: I'm Caroline Leavitt, I'm in New York bestselling author of 12 novels, including Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You. I'm going to share tips and tricks to help you delve into your character’s moral choices and changes.
I’m here with my friend and colleague, Gina Sorell, who’s a wonderful novelist and former stage, movie, and TV actress. Her novel, Mothers and Other Strangers, has the best first sentence ever: it goes straight into the characters. From just that sentence, you can learn something about the narrator, you can see instantly that there’s a conflict, and you’re going to want to know more. So she’ll be talking a bit about that, as well as how the techniques she used to bring her characters to life on stage and screen can be used in novel writing.
Understanding the importance of characters
A lot of people think that writing a novel is all about creating some exciting event — but that’s not true. If you think about literary classics like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Great Gatsby, you’re much more likely to remember the characters — their temperament, their iconic moments, their struggles — than the string of events that occurred.
Gina Sorell: And as a writer, I think so much of the story can come from the characters themselves. Exploring their histories, behaviors, and motivation lets me put them in situations that challenge them and create tension — the characters personally help me create my story and plot.
CL: Character development and plot development go hand in hand. When developing a story, you’d start with a premise. Take Jaws, for example. The initial premise is that there’s a man-eating shark swimming in the waters of the beach resort town — that’s our first exciting event. But for the story to go on, there must be a character, and more importantly, a character who undergoes some changes by the end of the book.
Let’s say there’s a sheriff — a police chief who has to decide whether to save people by closing the beach down, or save jobs by keeping the services open. Both choices come with their own costs; now we have a higher-stake situation. The sheriff’s decision now propels the story. And in this case, he eventually chooses to hire a professional to hunt down and kill the shark, so he doesn’t have to close things down.
So our premise has expanded: not only is the town facing disaster, but the sheriff is also going to go on an expedition to kill the creature causing all the trouble.
And if you read the original book, you’ll find that the sheriff reacts to the situation and reflects on the outcomes of his decisions. He eventually realizes his own mistakes and changes his perception. He realizes that people’s lives should be his first priority, and he approaches the shark-hunt in a different manner subsequently.
Revising your premise, developing your character, and teasing out a plot are all parts of the same novel planning process. Which is why creating believable characters is important.
Ask questions about your character
GS: I think the best way to build your characters is to get to know them, as you would a real person. Often it’s just about asking the right questions and searching for in-depth answers. Here are some questions I ask myself about both the characters that I write and the ones I used to play.
What is the story they’ve got to tell?
Sometimes it can start with just one line of dialogue. When writing my debut novel, Mothers and Other Strangers, I walked around with this first line in my head for months:
My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was 19. And knowing that she was pregnant, with a dead man's child, she accepted.
I wondered: Who's speaking? Well, it's the daughter, for starters. Then I thought: What kind of mother would tell her child something like that? And then I had to know. I began exploring mothers who are going through difficulties — disappointed, troubled mothers — which led me to the idea of dissatisfied women, a mother who maybe that her life was cut short at 19. Maybe this woman had lost a great love and had no choice but to marry someone else. Then came a string of other questions:
- What happened to that love?
Why did she have to marry someone else, and who was this new person?
How did her feeling trapped and heartbroken affect how she saw her own child?
There was so much to explore in developing what kind of woman this mother was, what kind of mother she would be. And then knowing the mother led me to discover what kind of person her daughter would subsequently be.
What is their motivation?
As an actor, before you audition, you often get a quick breakdown of the characters. It’s basically the part you’re auditioning for boiled down to a one-line description like: “a young, depressed, out-of-work woman in her mid-thirties mourns the mother she never knew.” While this is helpful to give you a quick idea about who you’re going for, you have to remind yourself that characters that bring a story to life are like real people — they’re complex and varied. No one’s just one thing.
You might’ve heard about actors reading the script and telling a director something along the lines of, “my character would never do that.” I myself have probably said it, although the screenwriter or playwright wrote that for a reason. It’s the job of the actor to figure out why a character would do something, whether it seems likely or not.
CL: Additionally, you can think about what the cost of not doing something is to them, and how they weigh it against other courses of action. I often put my character into a situation where they have to make a moral choice: they are presented with two terrible choices, both with high costs.
Imagine your character is a poor man with a sick wife, who’s going to the only pharmacy in town which has the drug that can help her. If she doesn’t have it right away, she’ll die, and she’s the love of his life. However, the drug is incredibly expensive, and he must pay upfront. Between stealing from the pharmacy to save his wife and remaining a good citizen but losing his wife, what would the character choose? This kind of situation reveals to us the character’s principles and his deepest self.
GS: Understanding the guiding morals and the motivation of a character often leads you into their backstory, which takes us to the next big question.
What happened to them?
In a movie or TV show, the audience meets characters at a certain time and place in their lives. They don't always know what happened before this moment, but they might be able to fill in some of the gaps with informed assumptions about the characters. But actors and writers do fill in a lot of those gaps, even if it’s just for themselves and not for the screen, or in our case, for the pages. It helps us know the character’s actions and reactions, emotions, and motivations.
Let’s take for example a situation where a painfully shy woman suddenly decides that she's finally had enough of her boss's demeaning comments and jokes, and she stands up in the middle of a nationwide meeting to call him out. (When you’re stuck, you can always put your character in a relevant situation first and work backward from there to see if their reaction is reasonable.) Why did she do this? Depending on the context of your story, you can find a complex yet suitable answer to that question. Perhaps:
She had a domineering parent who she never challenged growing up, and that parent has just passed away. She now feels free to say all the things that she should’ve said to her parent — her boss just happens to be the right person, at the right time and place.
She caught a glimpse of a young colleague being bullied by the boss before the meeting, and it made her remember her own experience as a new employee who was also badly treated.
What’s important is that you get to know the obstacles and pressures that this character has undergone to know why this scenario leads to confrontation.
CL: You can also give your characters ‘ghosts’ when answering this question. Think about what haunts from their past — it could be a person, but it could also be an event, a mistake, or a misconception. What do they heal from, and how can they do it? Is time enough, or is there a need for a revelation of some secret? Those are all things that can help create a richer background.
“Tell me about yourself.”
GS: Figuring out big questions is important, but to develop a believable character, you also want to know them as you would an ordinary friend. That means spending time with them and sifting through our own judgments to appreciate them for who they are.
Which is where this exercise comes in. When I was doing improvisational theater with The Second City, they used to get an actor to go in front of the room as their character, and everyone in the class would interview them. They’d say, “Tell me about yourself,” and ask questions like:
- How old are you?
- Are you married or single?
- Are you a professional?
And with every answer, the actor builds their character. It can be very intriguing and fun, and can also inform the voice and attitude of the character. For instance, to the questions above, I might answer:
- “How old am I? I’m 29, forever. Wouldn’t you agree?”
- “Married? Yes, and happily.”
- “Well, not everyone considers it a profession.”
The answers could be true, they could be obvious lies, or maybe they are meant to deflect. I like to spend time with my character like this and get to know them so well that I can follow them anywhere.
Create a photo board
CL: This is my way of inviting my characters into my life: I keep what I call a character board. It’s basically a pinboard of photos of regular people showing different emotions — people who remind me of my characters. These are photos from Humans of New York and such sites. With this in my office, I’m always thinking about my characters; they become real people in my life.
GS: I also really like to have pictures of where they live, their homes — I'm kind of obsessed with real estate and interior design. You can get so much information that way, it’s like when you go to an open house and see how other people live. I like to cut pictures of places I think my character would live in out of magazines.
Again, I’d ask questions like: Does the character rent the place or do they own it? What part of town is it, and why does the character live here? Were they always living here, or did they move in from another area or city? All this helps me unfold my story.
Express your character in another art form
CL: What I do for this is I do what my character does. When I was writing Pictures of You, in which my character Stella becomes a painter, I began to watercolor paint again, too. As I did that, I started to pick up on her perspective more. Things that I wouldn't have noticed before, but that she would — like is this shade of green deep enough for this tree? — began to pop up in my mind. I started noticing people and thinking that maybe I’d paint them. This makes it easier for me to write in Stella’s voice.
Put together a playlist
GS: Using another art form is a really great way to get character inspiration. I like to use music — I love to create a soundtrack of songs that I think are right for each of my characters.
The other benefit of this is if I’ve been away from my desk and my writing for a few days, or if I feel like I’ve lost my flow, I can listen to those songs again. The music helps me get back into the character’s frame of mind and into the place where I left off. The playlist is my reference for the characters as well as a cue for me as the writer.
CL: I think the idea of a soundtrack is genius. My publisher did a book club kit for me once — it compiled lists of songs that the main characters would each listen to. And as I went through that, I felt like I was learning more about the characters.
Let the character write you a letter
CL: Sometimes when I'm stuck, I'll ask my character, "What the heck is making you so angry, or sad, or frustrated? Tell me." And I let them tell me. I open up a blank document and I just let the words spill out on the page — it’s like freewriting, only from the perspective of your character. And sometimes what comes out is really startling, I find out a lot about their thinking and pent-up emotions. Do you do this, Gina?
GS: I do. When I was an actor, I liked to write monologues for my characters. I give them a chance to tell a story or a secret, to let out something personal. It's intimate, like their confiding in someone something important to them. That someone could be a stranger or a therapist. The character may be making a confession, or they're lying on their deathbed, sharing their final thoughts and feelings. I find those moments, and the monologues that come from them, very revealing about either a part of their life or the way they see the world.
Adopt a new point of view
CL: While it’s good to get into the character’s head, you can also develop their image and interaction with others by adopting the view of those around them. Writing one character's scene from another character's viewpoint can really open things up.
For instance, imagine that The Great Gatsby had been told from Daisy's point of view. What might her perception of Gatsby, what might she know about him, that would show you a new facet to him?
GS: I think this is a great tip, because how we see ourselves isn't always how others see us, and that's true for our characters as well. You can definitely play with that to create interesting dialogues and scenes that show how nuanced your character is.
Don’t write likable characters, write sympathetic ones
CL: You don't need to love your characters, you just need to understand them. You want readers to see that they’re human too, and there’s logic behind what they do.
Consider a character in the Mafia — he’s a killer and a thug, but maybe we’re still interested in him and his story because we see how much he loves his family. He’d do anything for them, and that makes him relatable. It makes him sympathetic. It makes us connect to him a little, even though we’re not murderers.
Remember also that villains don’t consider themselves villains. They usually are just doing what they need to survive. They're human, so they’ll have human sentiments and hobbies, like loving their dog, or being great at playing the violin.
GS: When I was an actor, I used to say, "Well, you don't have to like your characters, but it's good to love them." And I feel the same way as a writer. I don't think characters have to be likable, but I want to identify with them, I want to be able to see them and follow along on their journey.
As my debut novel has two difficult and complicated women at its center, one concern that I heard over and over again was, “Will the readers like them?” My answer just was no, they wouldn't. But if I develop them fully, open them up emotionally, and bring them to life on the page, maybe the readers could understand them, empathize with them, and want to follow them on their journey. That’s one way of loving a character.
And since the book’s release, a lot of readers have said that the characters in there are complicated like the women they knew in their own lives. That’s a huge compliment to me.
CL: For my character, Simon, in With or Without You, the guy is a bit of a jerk at the beginning, and a lot of people start the book not liking him. But I usually tell them to keep reading and get to know him, because he changes, and your perception of him will, too. People, which characters are, are complex, and it’s difficult to find someone who has nothing you can sympathize with. As a writer, it’s your job to show this complexity.
Show, don’t tell
CL: Actions speak louder than words. Actions don’t lie. It's too often said, and that’s because it's true.
GS: I was an actor for 20 years, and because it's a visual medium, I really had that luxury of using actions to convey things about the character. It’s not as easy in writing as it is in acting, but showing rather than telling is still the way to go. It's not enough for your characters to just make claims about themselves, because as we discussed, our view of ourselves is always different from other people’s views of us. We want to see those statements in action. Don't say that the character is the most thoughtful person ever, show them stopping to talk to a neighbor on their way to work, show them helping someone else even though they’re running late and their phone’s buzzing with warning texts from their boss.
I also love that the character's actions can be used to reveal things about themselves that they don't want anyone to know. For example, let's say your character’s a woman who’s going on a date at a restaurant. As she sits down, she has to make sure that all that the cutlery is perfectly spaced and in line before she can relax. Maybe she wipes lipstick off her glass every time she finishes taking a sip of her drink.
We'll start to wonder: What’s going on with this person? Maybe she’s very particular, borderline obsessive. But we get to see that happen, rather than be told, "She was really neurotic and controlling. She needed everything just so."
On the other hand, those same behaviors could evoke some emotions within the reader. If she's not controlling, then maybe she’s really anxious. Readers can imagine themselves in that situation too, and feel for the character.
And then the guy who’s on this date with her, maybe he hesitates outside the restaurant and checks his wallet before coming in. He notices a stain on his cuff and has to roll the sleeve up to cover it. We know then that he’s nervous too, and money might be tight for him. And if he happens to say, "Wow. Sorry, I was running late, we just took my company public today. And it was a bidding war like nothing I've seen before," then we know he’s lying, and we’ll wonder why. Details can really show a lot about a character.
CL: I love that. One of the best things you can do for your writing is to watch people. When you're in a restaurant, look at people, and see what their body language is telling them about what they’re feeling and saying. You can pick up some great things about what people do across a range of emotions and social situations.
GS: It takes a really long time to write a novel, so in creating these wonderful characters, you’re creating people you enjoy spending time with as you get to know them. And getting them on the page is your way of introducing them to others as well.