Creating believable characters in your novel is the key to making your story come alive to your readers. The conflict between your believable hero and heroine are what really make your story compelling. It's the conflicts and believable characters that we can relate to, see in our own lives, that hold the reader's interest for the duration of the novel. Everyone knows that a romance has a happy ending, so to keep the reader hooked, you need to get them to fall in love with your characters and care enough about them to be vested in seeing how they overcome those trials and tribulations (conflict) that your story presents.
Consider anyone you know, including yourself. Are any of us flawless? I've never met anyone who was, and as such, our characters need to be three-dimensional. Meaning, they have a combination of personality traits, admirable qualities as well as a few believable and yet understandable flaws that likely stemmed from something in their past (back story).
You, the author, needs to know your characters back story (everything key that happened before the start of your story) to portray a believable character within your novel. It's important to note that your readers will not have to know all that you, the author, knows. Only the smallest tidbits of their past will likely be needed to be revealed within the confines of the written story to create reader sympathy for even the most unlikable characteristics you may decide to give your hero, heroine, or villain. Back story is passive, not active, and thus needs to be kept to a minimum in the written story and should be disclosed for the most part in introspection or dialogue, not in flashbacks, unless you are a skilled writer, and not in long segments of exposition or narrative, either. When it comes to back story within the written story, less is definitely more!
By building your hero and heroine's characteristics from their past and then allowing the current story situations to alter their personalities, flaws, beliefs, goals, motivation, etc., you are able to show your character's growth within the story. No reader wants a static character, they want to see them change along the course of the novel, and that growth goes a long way in making a fictional character believable.
To begin building a fictional character you might find it helpful to combine qualities from several people you know, acquaintances, or even the clerk you've only addressed once or twice at a store you frequent. Quirks and idiosyncrasies are great qualities that add believability to characters and the less you know a person the more those attributes may stand out. So watch and listen and see what realistic mannerisms you can give your characters to fit with the plot you're about to emerge them in. Keep your story in mind as you create your characters, giving them strengths and weaknesses that will cause conflicts and deep emotion to emerge, sustaining the length of the story.
Secrets from their past, sinful ways, and shames that divulge real-life struggles and that your characters are not proud of are sure to create reader sympathy. Empathy is an important emotion to attain from your readers to keep them hooked and reading. In line with that, remember to keep your characters' positive attributes foremost in the reader's mind. If you allow the negative characteristics to hide the good, you could easily lose your reader's sympathy for that character--above all, you want your readers to care about what happens to your hero and heroine. The flaws you give your characters are for believability and to help build conflict and emotion within your story, they are not the be all and end all, they are a beginning.
We must also keep in mind the spiritual element required in a Christian Romance. This element, like the characters, must reveal change and growth throughout the course of the novel. The conflicts your characters must endure will cause this growth or in some cases slips before the growth, but the reader must see how the conflicts effect the character's spiritual being.
There are five basic ways to help readers to get to know your characters. Physical description is one. Describing certain features of your characters helps to define them and also divulges personality traits and the interest level of the one who is describing the other. Avoid using the mirror technique to give physical attributes, the reader will get so much more out of hearing what the characters look like through another character's eyes. As the story progresses, how each character sees the other should also change and thus show the growth in the relationship and also the emotional bond forming between the hero and heroine. Remember that a character's apparel can show a lot about the person as well, and it too can change with the character to show mood, growth, etc.
Giving your characters unique or specific mannerisms, but not over-using them so that they become cliche, is the second way to help readers relate and get to know your characters. Mannerisms are especially useful in showing a character's mood and emotions rather than telling or naming the emotion. As often as you can, you want to write active, and mannerisms are active, just don't overuse them so that the reader starts rolling their eyes every time you mention the hero running his hand through his hair, etc.
The third way that readers get to know your character is by action/reaction. Action is what happens in an external event, which then elicits a reaction from the character. Here again, knowing your character's personally is so important. Your character's reaction to any particular situation must be consistent with their personality and style. That's not saying they can't surprise even themselves, as happens in real life, but you must provide some kind of reasoning somewhere in the story (preferably such that it is still fresh in the mind of the reader) that makes his/her reaction plausible and thus believable for that situation and in that set of particular circumstances.
Dialogue and Introspection are the last two ways that a reader gets to know your characters and they will be discussed further in later study notes as Gail Gaymer Martin has devoted whole chapters to each of these areas of study. I've condensed two chapters from Writing the Christian Romance into this set of study notes. These chapters are packed full of wonderful techniques and strategies to create believable characters and sharing those characters with readers. But as with all study notes, we can't reverberate everything, but hopefully these notes give enough information to help you make your characters at least a little bit more believable and personal to all who read your story.
Tomorrow we will take a look at Emotions and Senses in Writing the Christian Romance.