Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Believable Characters


What are those things you’re not going to talk about in polite company? Sex, politics, and religion? Well, I’ve blogged about the latter two of those for the entire month of May, and I will never blog about the first, so it’s time to pull the blog back from dangerous currents and talk about writing.

Sometimes I do have to remind myself that this is, in essence, a writer’s blog, because I’m interested in so many things besides writing (and, of course, all those things, especially religion and politics, inform my writing).

But this is just about writing. Specifically, it’s about what we mean when we talk about a character in literature being “believable.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Lord Peter Wimsey. because, as I said a few posts back before I got diverted onto other subjects, I reread a bunch of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter mysteries a few weeks ago. I think most lovers of these novels would agree that Lord Peter is one of the most memorable characters in English literature — certainly in detective fiction — but would you call him believable?

On one level, no. In the book Dangerous by Degrees, Susan Leonardi, writing about Sayers’ perspective on marriage, writes that of course Lord Peter is able to be the perfect husband for Harriet Vane (eventually) because he’s not a real man — he’s a character written by a woman writer, the intellectual woman’s perfect wish-fulfillment. He’s brilliant, good-looking, rich, impeccably charming, but also humble enough to appreciate a strong woman and allow her to be strong. Besides being a great detective he knows everything there is to know on a variety of subjects and can spout literary quotations in multiple language at a moment’s notice. He’s adorably silly with a core of absolute seriousness, and he’s strong enough to defeat the wiliest and most vicious criminal while also being extremely vulnerable — though, of course, he keeps his vulnerability well-hidden.

If the measure of a believable character is that the reader can so, “Oh, of course, s/he’s just like so-and-so that I met the other day,” then Lord Peter Wimsey is the least believable character in English literature, because I’m pretty sure no-one, including Dorothy Sayers, ever met anyone in real life just like him. Yet few readers would argue that he works as a character: he seems more vivid and real and memorable than most of the people we do meet everyday.

How does Sayers do that? How does she write a character who’s basically a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and yet not make him cardboard and flimsy like far too many characters in badly written fanfic (or badly written published fiction, for that matter — think of most romance heroes!)?

For one thing, she makes Lord Peter idealized, but not perfect. He has flaws, as well as vulnerabilities. He can be insufferably arrogant. Admittedly, he has lots of reasons to be arrogant, but he doesn’t always hide them. He can be vain and impatient. He has, until he meets and falls in love with Harriet, a very practical and detached approach to sexual relations, which you might see as a flaw, depending on how moral and/or how romantic you are. He’s always intriguing, but there are times when he’s not necessarily likeable or admirable.

But what really makes Lord Peter work so well as a character, I think, is that he’s believable even though he’s unbelievable. That is, he may be unbelievable in the context of the real world — most of us have never met anyone, even an English lord, quite like him — but he’s completely believable and consistent within the books themselves.

The best example I can think of is from a book that I think doesn’t get enough credit — the last full-length Wimsey novel, Busman’s Honeymoon. There’s a scene in that book where Peter and Harriet return to their honeymoon cottage after visiting with neighbours, and Lord Peter is making love to his wife — making love in the good old-fashioned sense, that is, of saying romantic words that will eventually lead to making love in our more modern sense. They’re not in bed yet, and Sayers is vague about what they’re actually doing with their bodies in this scene: what we get, instead of explicit actions, are words, mostly Peter’s words — a glorious jumble of literary quotations and allusions that are both arcane and erotic. There may not be any man on earth — unless, perhaps, a particularly passionate professor of English literature somewhere — who has wooed a woman with this particular torrent of language, but it fits perfectly with the character.

What Lord Peter doesn’t know, but the reader does, is that the scene is being watched and overheard by another character — an unintentional eavesdropper. When the eavesdropper is caught, Lord Peter gets very angry, and is not nearly as sympathetic to the eavesdropper (who has problems of her own) as one might wish him to be. His behavior is, in fact, quite petty and a little bit mean, in comparison with the high-flown language of love he’s just been using to woo his new wife.

The scene works so well, for me, because it’s perfectly consistent. Maybe there never was a man who spoke to his wife like Lord Peter speaks to Harriet — but if there were, and if he were interrupted and realized he’d been overheard by a third party, this is exactly how he would react.

And this is exactly what’s so hard to do as a writer — to create a character who is completely believable within the world of the book — and to make that character’s flaws and actions so consistent that we believe them absolutely, even if we’ve never seen anyone in real life who reacts in quite that way.

I firmly believe Dorothy Sayers was a genius at characterization. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us non-genius writers are exempt from trying.

So, writers and readers, what do you think makes a character real, believable, and memorable? Got any good examples?


2 thoughts on “Believable Characters

  1. I don’t know what exactly makes a character work or not. I think you hit a lot of the qualities right on the head. Not quite perfect and yet somehow perfectly idealized. I do know that when an author can make me love a character, really love a character, I will suffer through quite a bit, including poor writing and frustrating plot devices to follow that character. When an author can strike that rarely found balance of fabulous characterization with a great story, that is a book I will re-read often.

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