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When creating a character, what red flags would show me that I'm creating an unbelievable or unsympathetic character? I know that to be believable and sympathetic a character must not lean too much to a single extreme or be a caricature. Besides paying careful attention to character traits when reading, how can I learn more about what constitutes a caricature? What signs might there be that I'm writing an unbelievable character or one no one will care a thing about?

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Well, first and foremost - do you believe in the character? Do you think he/she is sympathetic? If so, you're already in a good position - because you have a believable, sympathetic character, you just haven't convinced your readers of that yet - meaning, if you get negative critiques on the point, you just need to figure out why you like the character, and focus on bringing those elements out more strongly.

But that's not what you asked - you asked about warning signs. Here are a few:

  • "I know this sounds unlikely, but Real Person X really did that/acted this way, so it's believable." This logic is tempting, but it doesn't hold - your readers have never heard of Mister X; they won't be as accepting of the implausibility as you are. Either have him do something else, or justify it so it's no longer implausible.
  • "So in chapter 15, Audrey reveals that she's actually a judo master..." Any major revelation about a significant, well-exposed character should mesh well with the rest of the novel. For example, Audrey shouldn't turn out to be a judo master in chapter 15 if we've known her as a snarky housewife until then, with no hint of this extraordinary talent (and especially if she's been complaining about not going to the gym enough in the first five chapters). Dropping sudden, out-of-the-blue bombshells on readers can make them lose their trust, and make it feel like the character is being invented as you go along, rather than being portrayed as a believable, complete, consistent individual. Consider establishing the "revelation" earlier, as part of character exposition, or else providing appropriate foreshadowing so that the Big Surprise clicks together.
  • "My protagonist is kind of an asshole. I know - I'll give him a puppy he really loves!" A common stratagem is to give the unlikable character a single redeeming feature. Sometimes, this can work marvelously. But if it's done as a patch, and not invested in enough, then the redeeming feature might feel artificial and unconvincing - leaving the character unlikable and making the author look kind of silly. Don't assume that the "Asshole/Evil + Redeeming Feature" formula guarantees a likable character - consider the character concept as a whole; make sure the redeeming features get real play and affect the story; make sure you haven't just laid down an embarrassingly obvious patch.
  • "Jerome is an intelligent guy, and he's also got a great sense of humor!" Well, does he? This is a specific "Show, don't (just) tell" issue - when you introduce a character by telling us what kind of person he is, but you don't actually show him acting in accordance with the description you've given us, then the character becomes less believable, and might even come off as arrogantly claiming virtues he doesn't possess. So the charming hunk had better actually act charming; the intelligent guy had better actually know a lot; the alleged bully had better do some actual, cruel bullying, or else the main characters will look awful trying to get back at him. So, whenever you find yourself describing a character explicitly, make sure he matches that description (or at least, that there's a good reason he's being described misleadingly).

That's what I've got at the moment... Hope these are helpful :)

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This is definitely the kind of information I was looking for. –  justkt Mar 4 '11 at 15:02
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What signs might there be that I'm writing an unbelievable character or one no one will care a thing about?

If your character is perfect, that is a bad sign. Your character must have weaknesses and fallacies. If you're writing a guy who is all good (or all bad), the reader won't care about him or your story because there really is no story to tell.

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I like to discover a character like solving a mystery. Provide enough information to figure it out without giving it away. Clues can be provided indirectly. A character may reveal something about herself in one conversaton but omit it in a similar one. What someone doesn't say or do can be equally important.

Their past should be consistent with their actions but not predictable or way off. Indoril Nerevar had a great point on providing too much background before any action. Never thought about it before but it makes sense. That way you identify the character in the story and don't just read a bunch of facts about them with no context.

It's nice to base a character on what or who you know, but you have to be careful how you present them. Unless you can recall how you met this person and learned about them, you may want to have a fresh start and meet someone new. It could provide a better understanding of the discovery process. How did you know they came from a wealthy family? You don't remember seeing the Christmas card of their family in front of that massive fireplace and the dozen questions you asked about it. Now it seems like you've always known, but the reader won't.

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It might be a good idea to base a character (atleast partly) on someone you know, or another character you are familiar with. This way there's something real about the character which atleast some readers might relate to

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Whenever I try to do this, I run into too much "hey, that character is me!" from friends. –  justkt Mar 3 '11 at 16:48
    
Agreed, but it can still serve as a nice and helpful template since its important that the author feel that he himself knows the character. –  Slartibartfast Mar 3 '11 at 17:04
    
The trick is to take bits of pieces from people. Maybe take a quirk from your sister and the personality of the guy down the street. Mix and match different things from different people to make a unique character. –  Ralph Gallagher Mar 3 '11 at 18:04
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I like to use actors for this. Imaging Steve Buscemi as your character. Or Paul Newman. Or Jake Gyllenhaal. Or Maggie Gyllenhaal. Each choice gives you a very different character. –  Dale Emery Mar 3 '11 at 20:42
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I think, the worst way to introduce a new character is starting by detailed description of her/his background and motives before the character starts acting.

  • She was and old kind woman. Her five children and twelve grandchildern have trained her in patience and toleration.
  • A greedy and unforgiving sociopath accustomed to be always right. His father died from heart attack when he [the character] was six so he and his two sisters were grown in poverty. He is sure that his father's alleged cowardice was the root of all bad events of his childhood.
  • etc.
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