Believable Characters: The Commandments of Dramatis Personae

By Brian Kaufman

You might already be scanning ahead to read my Ten Commandments. Don’t. This isn’t about what I think. It’s about prodding you to define how you think about your characters (and, by extension, your understanding of human nature).

Think about the fictive characters you’ve loved. Here are a few of mine:

  • Tyrion Lannister from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice.
  • Al Swearengen from the television show, Deadwood.
  • Joe Pike from Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole series.
  • Lizzie Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
  • William of Baskerville in Umberto Ecco’s The Name of the Rose.

Let me stop at five and note that these are radically different characters, all of whom I find compelling. But why?

Turn to Mr. Google, and he will advise you to be sure your characters have flaws. Noir detective? Make him an alcoholic. Chic lit heroine? Make her smoke and be overweight.

I think an author needs to do more work than that.

“Man will only become better when you make him see what he is like.”

~Anton Chekhov

I view art as a means to truth, revealing human nature. Toward that end, I sat down years ago to write a list of human attributes to weigh my characters. There are, I believe, some constants in human nature. If my characters were believable, I needed to ensure they followed those constants (or rebelled against them consistently and credibly).

Here’s the important thing—you are writing your story, with your values and your world view. My commandments, presented below, are valuable only insofar as they prompt you to examine what you believe. 

“We are all self-absorbed, locked in our own worlds. It is a therapeutic and liberating experience to be drawn outside ourselves and into the world of another.”

~Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature

If you simply trot your characters through a plot, they can go ahead and be two-dimensional. It won’t matter. But if you want your characters to stick to your reader, it will help to have them work within (or against) your core beliefs.

Why is that? Writers make a considerable number of choices, consciously or unconsciously. Those choices reflect what the writer believes. On one level, the plot may offer direct social commentary. On a deeper level, every aspect—even symbolism—can reveal the author’s attitudes.

One easy example. In Willa Cather’s The Lost Lady, Cather uses Arthurian symbolism to express that the modern era was a shadow of earlier heroic times. This lends a layer of melancholy to the protagonist’s changing fortunes as the plot progresses. Ms. Cather’s beliefs were infused in Marian Forrester. Not so that critics could reverse engineer Cather’s views, but the character became a natural extension of the author’s values and opinions. That made Marian real, first to Ms. Cather and subsequently to the reader.

Are your protagonists stuck in Campbell’s hero’s journey? Are your villains a cartoon? Or do your characters follow your notions of human nature, revealing that view as the plot progresses?

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

~Abraham Lincoln

The idea of Commandments is probably too rigid, by the way. More like notes (though THE TEN NOTES just doesn’t have the same ring). Here are my observations on character. I often revisit this list as a reminder. (When I spend time reading other writers or watching movies, this is an act of recalibration.) 

  1. We are All Broken. Fragmented and dysfunctional to varying extent. 
  2. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. People’s values differ, and so their evaluations of actions differ. Motivation to help may be a hindrance to people with differing values. It might even be considered an attack. 
  3. We Crave the Attention of Others. Humans are social animals. Those who disdain the high opinion of others often seek their wrong opinion instead. The worst thing you can do to another human being is to ignore their existence.
  4. People Often Say the Opposite of What They Do. People know their sins and limitations. When they talk about themselves, they mitigate those shortcomings. Often portraying an alternate narrative to their actions. These people don’t think they are lying—they may be reaching for a wished-for virtue or value. If they say, “To be honest with you . . .” they are likely not being honest. If they say, “I wouldn’t put up with that,” they surely would. 
  5. People Aren’t Rational—They Rationalize. The reasoning process is applied after the fact to justify actions or emotions. We do what we want, then create an explanation. Rationalization helps us feel better about doing what we know is wrong.
  6. Personalities are Constituted and Performed. We develop our public personas whole-cloth from culture (and when culture has contradictions, we acquire those contradictions). We perform this character for most encounters. It’s easier than thinking.
  7. There is an Essential Self, Seldom on Display. Because we crave the attention of others, we focus on performance. But the core personality (some call that the soul) is still there, hidden. When we’re alone or in comfortable one-on-one encounters, that self can come out. In a group? Probably not.
  8. For the Most Part, People Cannot Get Along. Because we are broken, we imagine others as complete. Because we have limits, we suspect others have none. Because we are constituted, we imagine others as natural. And we hate feeling less, so we rationalize. This requires that we envy success. The few who avoid this are blessed.
  9. We Find Connections, Even if There Are None. Humans are good at connecting things. That’s how we deal with the universe. The universe is chaotic, so we crave those connections because they provide a framework, even when the links don’t exist. (I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, for example, but some people see that connection.)
  10. Order Must Be Imposed. We encounter the universe through connections, but that’s not enough to feel safe. We impose order to feel safe. The compulsion toward tyranny—and the desire to be ruled—are an unhappy consequence. Want an example? Imagine framing human nature within ten random observations as if such a thing could be done. I should have listed eleven…

There is a 100 percent chance that you disagree with something I listed. That’s okay. What really matters is what you think. As a helpful exercise, write your own Commandments. Think kindness is the pinnacle of human action? Your characters should carry that notion into the climax or denouement of your story. Think human beings are divine? Let that divinity shine in your character’s eyes. Think humans are a half-step removed from the animal kingdom? Write horror. Breathe your values and beliefs into your characters—it will help bring them to life. 

Character Development

Examples of Character Development

The Importance of Strong Character Development

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