How to write believable characters

Statue at Kerepesi Cemetery, Budapest,

I’ve been working with Julie for four years. She’s writing a fascinating novel, where half of the novel is set in Medieval Wales and the other half in modern times. The protagonist has lived both lifetimes. Read more about Julie, as well as an excerpt here.!__site/case-studies

Because Julie has based some of the events in the novel on her own life, as many first time novelists do, she has had trouble capturing her protagonist in the modern day story line. After several chapters, I still felt Julie was pulling the punches with the protagonist. The story had shifted enough that the character was sort of like Julie, but not like Julie fundamentally.

She’d already done a characterization sheet years before, but it wasn’t really resonating. So, in one of the chapters, Julie was writing backstory about the protagonist as a teenager taking care of an invalid mother. I had Julie stop, open a new document and spend a few days and even weeks developing this backstory. Still, even when we did this, I couldn’t quite grasp the protagonist. I couldn’t really “feel” her. I didn’t care enough about her. I know a protagonist is well-developed when I can feel the character standing beside me in the room.

Finally, in a recent session, Julie said: “Oh it’s just like being an actress.” She’d been involved in the theatre when she was younger. “It’s like method acting. You enter the character and become them.”

Bingo! That was exactly it. The next rewrite of the backstory after this turned out to be wonderful, visceral, real, compelling, emotional, complex! I could feel the protagonist standing beside me as I read. Julie had done it!

It’s a tough market for new novels. One hope a new novelist has is an exceptionally compelling protagonist. Can you enter the psyche, embed in the flesh, feel the soul of your main character? It may in the end be the difference that gets your novel noticed and published.

I’m a writing coach and offer a free initial consultation.


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