Give Them Emotions And Contradictions

What is most telling about characters is not the details about their lives and personalities; it's how they feel about those details. Their thoughts and emotions are what truly define them. For example:

Susan is 45 years old. Is there another age she'd rather be? Does she regret no longer being young, or does she feel she is blossoming now that her children are grown?

Michael stands almost six and a half feet tall. Does he enjoy being that height? Does he take advantage of his power to intimidate shorter people? Does he resent being asked yet again, "How's the weather up there?" or being told that he must be great at basketball?

Victor lives in a large colonial house in a posh suburb. What would he change about the place if he had a choice? Is this home the fulfillment of a long-held dream, or does he miss his small, easy-care apartment and the excitement of his old neighborhood in the city?

Anna is a plumber. Does she enjoy her job? Does she feel successful at it? What made her choose this line of work? Would she choose it again if she had to start over?

Some authors try to rely on character tags, hoping these will substitute for the serious work of really getting to know the person in question: Hey, I've got a great idea. I'll write about a one-legged accountant from Arizona who raises parrots. This is fine as a starting point, but it's not enough to carry the story. What counts is why the person is the way he is, and how he is affected by it. Unless such identification tags are developed, the character becomes a mere stage prop.

Nor can you simply assign characters roles as good guys or bad. None of us is all vice or all virtue. Often our motives and actions seem ambiguous and contradictory, even to ourselves. We act in ways that undermine our own stated intentions (...really, I meant to stick to my diet, but there was this cherry-cheese danish, just calling to me...). Our hearts convince us of one thing even as our heads tell us the opposite. Sometimes we must choose one course or the other, even though we are uncertain which way would be best.

Our emotions—love, loyalty, greed, jealousy, hate, fear—are the source of our strongest and most revealing motivations and actions. Feelings have no logic attached to them. This is what gives us our color, our edge, our quirkiness.

All of this applies to fictional characters too. To ring true to readers, characters need to have some complexities and contradictions in their makeup. It is as difficult for us to relate to a flawless hero as to a villain with no redeeming qualities. We all have dark sides and light sides to our natures, and the stories that speak to both are the ones we find most rewarding.


Characters who act out of character undermine a story's hard-won credibility. They make it hard for readers to maintain their willing suspension of disbelief. The behavior of your characters will be believable if it meets these five tests:

• It is consistent. Despite all the ambiguities and contradictions in their nature, people tend to behave in consistent ways, based on who they are physically, psychologically, and sociologically. They operate on the basis of habit and take comfort from routines. This is true even of those who pride themselves on being nonconformist; their patterns of behavior may be unconventional but they are patterns nonetheless. If a character in your story does behave strangely or inconsistently, he should have a strong reason for doing so, and someone inside the story (not just your readers) should notice.

It fits the character's motivation. Each character in your story has some sort of personal agenda—a goal to achieve or a desire to attain. This is what motivates her actions. As we will see in the next chapter, these varying agendas are the source of the conflict that drives the events of the story. Characters act to further their own self-interest, whatever they perceive that to be.

• It arises from his emotions as well as his intellect. As noted earlier, people's most powerful actions arise out of their emotions.

• It balances the risk and the payoff. Believability problems often arise because what the character will gain from a course of action is not worth the risk it entails. Most people would not rush into a burning house in order to retrieve a favorite sweater, but they would to rescue a child. Now suppose what's inside the house is the only existing copy of a manuscript that represents five years of intense work? The character will have to decide whether the payoff merits the risk—and then convince us he's right.

• It doesn't require your character to be a fool. Sometimes, in order to move the story in a certain direction, you may be tempted to have a usually sensible character act like an idiot. Think of the B movies in which the heroine, instead of going for help, tiptoes down the stairs all alone into the cellar where the lights have been mysteriously extinguished so she can investigate those disturbing screams. The risk is that you will lose your readers' sympathy, and there is little payoff in that.

This is the time to put your imagination into high gear, play plenty of "what if...," and come up with a better solution.

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