UNBELIEVABLE: 4 Steps for Making Peculiar Characters Believable

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Stories rely on the strength of their characters. The more memorable they are – the better. However, if we, as an audience, don’t buy the characters, we quickly lose interest in whatever their goals or struggles are. Crafting characters that feel real can be tricky for a number of reasons. In an effort to make our characters feel authentic, we sometimes base their characteristics or backstories on people we know in real life. While this can be an effective method, sometimes, life is actually more unbelievable than fiction.

Scores of writers have justified odd plot twists in their stories, while pitching to me, insisting that this is really what happened in the life of someone they know. Audiences are willing to suspend a certain amount of disbelief when engaging a character, but there’s a thin line that can be difficult to maneuver. Most of us enjoy a quirky character living as the fish out of water. However, peculiar characters can easily become annoying to audiences when we begin to doubt their believability.

Here are four steps for creating characters that your audience will love, regardless of their idiosyncrasies.

1. Give Them Strong Motivation

There’s perhaps no greater factor in persuading us to believe in the authenticity of a character than strong motivation. When we identify with why someone is the way she is or does what she does, we will saddle up next to her for any journey. Lady Bird is desperately trying to escape her small town and trivial life. We begin to understand why as her story progresses – she doesn’t want to become her mother. This universal theme regarding the complexities between parents and children dates back to at least Oedipus. We innately understand children not wanting to become their parents, despite the strong love they may feel for them.

A twist on this theme often occurs when a character is orphaned or when their mother is missing from the story. There is a strong but subconscious motivation to connect with the world and fill the gap left by the missing parent, though the character is usually extremely bad at it. JunoNapoleon Dynamite, and Superstar are all examples of these types of stories, featuring eccentric but believable characters with strong motivations.

2. Make Them Sincere

Sincere characters are hard not to love. Sarcasm, bitterness, and insecurity have made sincerity a true act of vulnerability in our culture. When we see it, we are intrigued, wishing we could embody more of this genuineness ourselves. In GLOW, Ruth Wilder is a character filled with nuance and layers. She also remains sincere throughout her journey, causing us to love her more deeply, as an audience. When she suffers injustice, sexism, and is the recipient of other’s vitriol, she never becomes resentful or a cynic. This doesn’t mean that we never see her emotional, crushed by sadness, or even tempted to give up. It simply means that her resolve and sincerity act as a north star to which she always returns.

TrainwreckThe Big Lebowski, and About A Boy all center on sincere but individualistic characters that we can laugh with, but secretly want to be like in some way. Their sincerity causes us to believe them and believe in them.

3. Provide Details

It’s the little things that often cause us to believe. The small details about what a character likes, their habits, and even insecurities can be fascinating when they serve to reveal to us who she or he is. The character of Annie in Hereditary is an artist that creates miniatures. Ari Aster, who wrote the script, could have simply alluded to the fact that the character is an artist. However, the details regarding the type of art she creates provide us not only with insights into who she is and how she views the world but also become useful in developing the plot of the story.

Oceans 8Solo: A Star Wars Story, and First Reformed all offer levels of detail about their characters that make us want to invest in their journeys. The way a character dresses, what they eat, the car they drive, and what part of town they live in can all be useful details in making them believable. The key temptation to avoid is providing details about a character that do not seemingly have any meaning or offer any insight into who the character is.

4. Give the Audience a Voice

The final step in making a character believable has little to do with the character in question at all, but instead depends on the development of another character in the story – the voice of the audience. When a character has an unusual way of moving through their world, it is important that someone else in the story be aware of this and point it out. This is psychologically reassuring to the audience that the feelings they may be having about the character are valid. This recognition gives the audience permission to connect with the character regardless of any red flags their foibles may raise.

In Deadpool, the character Weasel will often voice what the audience may be thinking of Wade Wilson. The audience enjoys laughing at Weasel’s clever banter with Wilson as it mirrors the perceptions they have been feeling about the protagonist of the story as well. Drax serves this role in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Shuri offers a similar voice in Black Panther. The character that gives voice to the audience often does so in a humorous way but also in a way that keeps the protagonist’s ego in check. They can remind the hero where they came from and keep them from the traps of narcissism. When the audience’s feelings and concerns about a character are given voice, the individual they are asked to follow becomes much more believable.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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