How to Make Your Characters Believable

by RW Peake

Good question. One of the mantras that all writers have been exposed to is “Write what you know.” However, what is it that you’re supposed to know? For example, how could I know what it was like to march in the Legions of Rome, to face screaming Gauls and confront death and violence? Part of that answer just comes from being me; as a career Infantry Marine, and having read a fair amount of military history, one thing that I know is that the life, outlook and challenges faced by a fighting man is essentially unchanged over the last 2,000 years. The same things that worried a man of the Legion worries the grunt in Afghanistan today. Bad officers, bad food, physical hardships, time spent in places that are usually physically harsh, all of these things are part and parcel of a military life. But that was only part of the equation, and it was my obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive need for accuracy that saw me spend a fair amount of money to purchase the complete outfit, from helmet to sandals of a Legionary of the Late Republic, and drive out to Big Bend National Park.

Fortunately for all involved, the drug couriers that frequent the park don’t carry cameras, so that there is no photographic record of my folly. After marching my feet bloody (despite their many contributions to the world that we use today, arch support wasn’t one of them), I felt more connected to my character, and I also felt that I could more easily identify with the ordeals that came with marching for Rome. My next step was to get a better idea of what it was like to be in the up-close-and-personal world of the short Roman sword. That’s what found a pig (already dead, lest you think I’m even weirder than you already do) hanging from the rafter of my garage as I thrust and cut with a sharpened gladius, learning very early on that the way to hold the weapon is with the edge parallel to the deck (that’s floor to you non-Marines), because the other way made the blade stick in the cartilage of the ribs. More than anything, I got a sense of what it took to thrust a sword into the flesh of another being, in more than the physical sense.

All of these things tied me to my character, and I’ve been very gratified to hear just how believable and human my readers find him. And it was only through what I jokingly refer to as “immersive research” that I think I was able to make that connection. I don’t suggest that you need to go to the extremes I did, but I do think you need to find a way to make more than just an intellectual connection to your character. In that way you can breathe real life into them and make them the living, breathing people they’re supposed to be.

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Genre – Historical Fiction

Rating – PG13

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