How to Make Your Characters Believable
“Characters you’ll want to hang out with—where does Sandy Nathan find these people? They live, they breathe. You love ’em. You hate ’em. And, you care about them. That’s what makes their story so engaging.” — Laren Bright, award-winning writer and three-time Emmy nominee
I was thrilled when the testimonial above came in. Others have said similar things about my characters. Where do I get them? How do I write them? What techniques do I use?
In truth, I have no idea where they come from or why they seem real or how I write good characters. This isn’t very helpful, so I contemplated this question and came up with the following insights to share with you.
The bottom line is: my characters are everything I’ve done, everything that’s happened to me, all of my feelings and reactions and pain, and my situation in life as I write. They’re everything I’ve learned about writing, a collage of all of my past work, and what bothers me in my deepest gut. My characters are created from what I’ve experienced in every meditation retreat or spiritual event in my life: my dreams, my fantasies, archetypes, and personal depths. They are also my verbal IQ.
They’re all of me and, as such, are non-transferable. If you’re planning on writing the way I do, you’ll have to delve into yourself and find the deep inner currents that carry memorable characters.
Let’s get a little more precise about the origin and development of my characters.
How did I come up with Eliana, the exquisite visitor from another planet, and Jeremy Edgarton, the sixteen-year-old genius revolutionary, the main characters of The Angel & the Brown-Eyed Boy?
As I discuss in the Author’s Note in The Angel, Eliana came to me hours after I had a totally unexpected mystical experience. As I slept, I experienced a brilliant golden light hovering over my bed. It exuded love, acceptance, and joy. It took away pain. The light lowered itself onto me as I lay in bed and merged with me. I got to feel the state of the angel: total goodness, purity, kindness, and love. The state went with me into my day, gradually declining until I was my normal self.
Shortly afterward, I experienced something like a tear in the fabric of the universe and Eliana was there. Jeremy followed soon after. The outlines of their stories were present in my mind and soul. The rest of the book followed in the next few days.
Why did I have that transcendental experience? Was it the phase of the moon? The alignment of the stars? A past life experience?
No. My younger brother died tragically and unexpectedly. I loved my brother dearly. He had a very difficult life. My heart was breaking––and that angelic presence came to me.
That is how an intuitive gets a story and characters. Do you know what an intuitive is?
The famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung developed a theory of personality types to explain differences between the ways he and his buddies, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, viewed the world. This has extreme relevance to writers. Here’s a blog article I wrote about Jung’s typology and why it matters to you.
The article talks about finding your Jungian type and about readers’ probable Jungian types. This is important: people who have the same Jungian type as you will like what you write. They are that tribe who all the consultants say you should find.
But some types are more numerous than others. In my article, which you really should read, you’ll find that just two types comprise almost 80% of the market. Those are the feeling and sensate types. If you are an intuitive (like me, yay!) or a thinking type, you’re fighting for a lousy 21.5% of the population from the outset.
As an example, I’m an intuitive. We like detail. We want to know everything that’s happened to our characters, every feeling and thought and fear they’ve had since birth. We also want to know about our characters’ personal growth trajectory and that of their dogs. And cats. Goldfish. We write long books.
But does everyone––the two types that make up almost 80% of the population––like long books? No. You have to modify your basic writing tendencies to attain a wide readership. There’s a lot more in the article.
The best way to make your writing more palatable to the population is edit the sucker. A good content editor will turn a 240,000 word monster manuscripts into a svelte 120,000 word novel that people will love to read. That’s what my editor did. It hurt, but I’ve got all this short story material now.
What does this have to do with creating realistic characters? You have your Jungian type. You’ll write a certain way because of it. That’s a curse or a blessing. Thinking and sensate types are probably going to have a hard time creating deep characters. They will be great at thrillers, mysteries, action adventure tales, and textbooks. Feeling types create the romance industry. Intuitives write visionary stuff, sci-fi, fantasy, and related. The Feelers and Intuitives like deep characters. They understand emotions and complexes and personal conflicts.
If you’re a Feeling type or Intuitive, you’ll have the basic requirements of writing believable characters, but you still have to learn to write. This means working with coaches, editors, and writing groups. Going to conferences. Reading about writing skills. Reading everything all the time, developing an ear for what’s good. It means tearing your work apart a zillion times. Being compulsive about every little word.
I’ve done the above since 1995—eighteen years, with no end in sight. But I’m learning to write. Learning, not “have learned.” It’s a lifelong process.
Writing believable characters means living with the way your work is presented to you. I have the big, uplifting blast offs that my personality presents me with.
Since you know that I got the inspiration for the Earth’s End series from my brother’s death, does this mean that someone has to die every time I start a book? No. The tear in the fabric of reality that allows my books to come stays open. If I use what’s given to me and write the book, more books flood out, in the same way that more toothpaste comes out if you squeeze the tube with the cap off.
Something even worse than my brother dying happened to me in the 1990s. I got the Bloodsong Series from that. Two books from that series have been published and maybe ten more bang from inside my hard drive, wanting out. What happened was so horrendous that I’m still inspired. Books flutter around me like moths. I just started a new one about a seven-year-old girl who is a bounty hunter––and a witch.
Anyway, characters. A big inner event happens. My whole life and soul gets activated from the gritty dregs to transcendental heights. Characters appear. And not all are from a single burst. They come to me as I’m standing at the vegetable counter at the grocery store. Walking to the barn. Taking a shower. Eventually, I end up in front of a computer with words pouring out of my fingers.
I write as inspiration moves me. I sit at my computer like a director creating a movie, playing all of the parts. When I’m writing my characters, I am the characters. I become them. I know how they think and feel. What they look like. They reveal more of themselves to me as I get to know them better.
For instance, I was writing one character and realized she was phobic. Afraid of everything. Saw a shrink, took medication. Another guy lived in Florida and went out airboating on the Everglades pretty often. He couldn’t swim and was afraid of water, but he really liked the birds on the ‘glades. I didn’t know that about those “people” when I started writing.
Glimmers of intuition give me the characters. Sitting with them, and letting them talk, reveals who they are. Feeling the characters in his or her body, hearing them breathe and talk, that’s how I do characters.
They come to me. I write them.
Tomorrow morning at 7:35 AM, a nuclear holocaust will destroy the planet. Two people carry the keys to survival: Jeremy Edgarton, a 16-year-old, tech genius and revolutionary; and Eliana, the angelic, off-world traveler sent to Earth on a mission to prevent her planet's death.
Welcome to a future world only heartbeats from our own.
By the late 22nd century, the Great Recession of the early 2000s has lead to a worldwide police state. A ruined United States barely functions. Government control masks chaos, dissenters are sent to camps, and technology is outlawed. War rages while the authorities proclaim the Great Peace.
It's New York City on the eve of nuclear Armageddon.
Join Eliana & Jeremy as they begin a quest to save two doomed planets . . . and find each other.
When the earth blows up at the end of The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy (Earth's End 1) that was it, right? The characters go off in all directions, nevermore to be seen.
Not exactly. In Lady Grace, a few survivors of the nuclear holocaust make their way back to Piermont Manor, Jeremy Edgarton's ancestral estate. The radiation is gone and it's finally safe to go home.
What awaits them makes their worst dreams look like Bollywood frolics. Right away, they find out that evolution can work for evil as well as good. Going home requires a battle more deadly than any they've fought.
The returning characters appear from everywhere, in ways you'd never believe. Some of them you've met before; some are new to Tales from Earth's End.
Bud Creeman and Wesley Silverhorse, characters from author Sandy Nathan's novel, Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money, drop in from the year 2015, thousands of years before the time of Lady Grace. Bud and Wes provide needed Native American skills and spiritual power.
Shining through it all is Lady Grace, a phoenix rising from the devastation of her civilization, unrecognizable as the person she once was.
It was a new world, but was it one that permitted love?
HE KNEW HER WORK WAS MURDER Sam Baahuhd has been the village headman for twenty-two years. Like all the headmen in surrounding villages, he has powers. But Sam's powers are greater than any headman's, anywhere, ever. He controls others with his speech and heals with a touch. Even with what he can do, Sam has survived only because he's kept his fellow villagers from murdering him. They're a gang of thugs who spend most of their time drunk or stoned. Sam and the villagers live on Veronica Edgarton's estate. Or they do until nuclear Armageddon forces them into a huge underground bomb shelter. When Sam carries a naked stranger into the shelter, he knows what she did before the war. Her work was murder--murdering people.
She tortured people until they broke, or died. She was a federal agent in a police state. Nuclear radiation traps Sam and Emily and the rest of the village's residents in an echoing cement cavern three hundred feet beneath the earth's surface. There is no escape from the underground. Not for them. Or their children, or their children's children . . . Sam has no idea Emily will ignite his heart and change his world. The lovely outsider carries deadly secrets. Only Sam with his village headman's power can heal her. Only Emily can make Sam the man he was meant to be. Passion explodes between them. Passion that brings joy and pain, ecstasy and remorse. Passion that can kill. Join Sam & Emily for a legendary love story you'll never forget.
Genre – Metaphysical Science Fiction
Rating – R
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