Writing Authentic Fiction: How to Build a Believable Character | Sabaa Tahir | Skillshare

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Writing Authentic Fiction: How to Build a Believable Character

teacher avatar Sabaa Tahir, Author

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Setting the Foundation


    • 3.

      Defining Attributes


    • 4.

      Prepping for the Interview


    • 5.

      Conducting the Interview


    • 6.

      Starting Writing


    • 7.



    • 8.

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About This Class

Want to write compelling fiction? The secret is creating authentic characters.

Join best-selling author Sabaa Tahir as she walks you through her personal process for crafting authentic characters! Packed with exercises, prompts, and tried-and-true techniques, this class will teach you how to create real and nuanced characters that feel like they could walk right off of the page. Once you master this, you'll be on your way to becoming the storyteller you've always dreamt of being. You’ll learn how to:

  • Define the goal, motivation, and conflict to set the groundwork for your character
  • Determine key attributes to build your character
  • Use different scenarios to situate your character and fuel the writing process

Plus, Sabaa walks you through her favorite exercise — The Character Interview — showing you how to enter your character’s mind to uncover insights and understand them on a whole new level.

Whether you’re new to writing or you’re looking to craft stronger characters, this class will give you the tools you need to develop the types of characters that stick with readers.

Note: This class contains spoilers for A Torch Against the Night, the second book in the An Ember in the Ashes series.

Meet Your Teacher

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Sabaa Tahir



Sabaa Tahir is a young adult author best known for her New York Times Bestselling fantasy series, which includes An Ember in the Ashes, A Torch Against the Night, and and A Reaper at the Gates. Prior to adopting writing as her full-time job, Sabaa worked as an editor at The Washington Post. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and spends her free time obsessing over music. 


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1. Introduction: The best books have great characters and you can't draw a reader into a good book without great characters. Hi, my name is Sabaa Tahir. I am an author of young adult fantasy books. Today, I am here to teach you how to develop a character. My books are called the Ember in the Ashes Quartet. Right now there are three, eventually there will be four. Between my first and second book, I realized that I didn't know my characters as well as I thought I did. So in a sense, I had to get to know them again and try to understand them more deeply. As a result of that, not only was I able to write my characters in a more authentic way, but as a whole the book came to me much more organically and much more naturally. So this class, I am going to be teaching you how to create a character, really from the ground up. We're going to start off with a couple of exercises that will help you answer key questions about your character and defined basic attributes. Then, we're going to go into a fun active exercise that will help you really dig deep into who your character is. I'm also a killer like her, and I'm good at it, and it make them a fully fleshed out character who feels like they're just going to step of the page. Great characters are the heart of any good story, and by taking this class, you will have the framework to build a great character. I am so excited to bring you guys on this journey. So let's get started. 2. Setting the Foundation: My books are called The Ember in the Ashes Quartet. Right now there are three, eventually there will be four. They follow the characters of Elias, a soldier, Laia, a scholar and Helene, another soldier. When I first started writing the book, I had no idea what I was doing, but they were inspired by my work as a journalist at the Washington Post. I was an editor and I worked on international news stories, most of which were super depressing and I think in reaction to how dark some of those stories were, I decided to write a story that had a lot of hope in it, that was a lot about courage, family and how people in really difficult situations find their way out of those situations. In my second book, I realized that I was stuck. I had no idea how to get them past a certain point in the book, because I didn't know realistically what they would do, and so much of my writing is about realistically portraying human nature even if it is in a fantasy world. So getting to know my characters in a more profound way was a very important part of transitioning from my first book to my second, and allowing my readers to really delve into the characters and who they truly are at their core. It allowed me to make decisions for them, as the author, have them make the decisions they would truly make if they were real characters as opposed to something that's more plot-driven, where it's like I am adjusting them according to the plot which is not what you want to do if you want to have a book that is a little bit more character-driven. So I wanted to start by talking about the difference between plot-driven books, and character-driven books. A character-driven book is different than a plot-driven book in that, it is focused on the character's arc. It is focused on their internal goals, and motivations, and conflicts as opposed to their external. Whereas, a plot-driven story is focused on the plot points and what actually happens in the story. So an example of a plot-driven book, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, and an example of a character-driven book, or movie is Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Jurassic Park is plot-driven because it is all about external motivation, it is about not getting eaten by dinosaurs. Crazy Rich Asians is so much about character because we are trying to understand what the internal motivations of these characters are, what their internal goals are and that is why we follow them. My favorite kind of book is something right in the middle between character-driven and plot-driven, and a really good example of that is the Hunger Games. Everyone thinks that the Hunger Games is plot-driven because of all the crazy stuff that happens, but it really is also so much about the main character and her growth, over the course of the series. It doesn't matter whether you're writing a plot-driven book or a character-driven book, or something in the middle, you have to have fully developed characters to make your story feel compelling. The groundwork for any fully developed character is defined by answering these three questions. What does your character want? Why do they want it? What's in their way? Shorthand, goal, motivation, conflict. Let's walk through a popular example, Harry Potter. I'm going to look at the first book only. I think his goal is to survive his first year at Hogwarts. Now, let's look at Harry's motivation. Why does he want that? He wants to survive his first year so that he can become a wizard. Now, let's look at Harry's conflict. What's stopping him? What's in the way? Well, Voldemort's trying to kill him. You need a goal for your character so that the story progresses and moves forward. You need motivation for that goal so that the goal doesn't feel empty and useless. You need conflict so that there's some tension in your story. Understanding and having a very clear goal, motivation and conflict is what allows you to have a fully fleshed-out character. So the example that I'm going to be using for my own work is Elias from, A Torch Against the Night, which is my second book. In the first book, spoiler alert, Elias finds his freedom. In the second book, he is traveling with Laia, the other main character. His goal is to help Laia break her brother out of prison. His motivation is that he promised her that he would do so. But his conflict is that he's being hunted by his best friend, and this particular prison is really hard to break into. It's really important for you to define the goal, motivation, and conflict of your character upfront because it affects everything in the story. So let's go ahead and write down Elias's goal, motivation, and conflict. So for the goal, Elias needs to break Laia's brother out of prison. For his motivation, he made a vow to Laia that he would do so. For his conflict, two things. First, the prison is nearly impossible to breach, and second, his best friend is hunting him. So to recap, write down your goal, motivation, and conflict, stick it somewhere you can see it when you're writing your book, and look to it every time you write a chapter because that's what's going to define your book. If you don't know your character's goal, motivation, and conflict, try filling one of these out for your favorite character or for a character you know really well in film or television. So take some time to answer these questions goal, motivation, and conflict of your character. Next up, we're going to be figuring out how to define the key attributes of your characters. 3. Defining Attributes: So now that you have the foundation of your character, let's start to build them out by defining your key attributes. So what are key character attributes? They are the things that make your characters feel real. It can be anything from their appearance, to their gender, to their socioeconomic class. So let's go ahead and do an example again for our key attributes, and let's use Harry Potter again. So if we're looking at Harry's age, Harry is 11 years old. When we look at his ethnicity, he's white, he's British. Gender, he's male. His appearance, which ends up being pretty important. He's short and scrawny, he's got black hair, he's got a lightning bolts car and green eyes, his mother's eyes. His family is very important. He is half muggle and half wizard. His orientation isn't as important in the early books, it's more important in the later books. He's straight. His socioeconomic status is important early on because he's very poor or at least he's treated that way by his family, and his education is a central part of the Harry Potter experience because he's learning to become a wizard. These key character attributes are not accidental. The fact that he's 11 for example, plays into a very important part of his goal, which is that he wants to survive his first year at Hogwarts. You have to be 11 years old to go to Hogwarts. His appearance is also not accidental. Harry has a lightening bolt scar, which identifies them as the boy who lived. Everybody knows that he was attacked by Voldemort and that he survived. It's good to be intentional with your key attributes, because they work in tandem with your goal motivation and conflict. So I've created a worksheet. It has a list of the key character attributes and it has the goal, motivation, and conflicts that will help you see how these attributes work in tandem with your goal, motivation, and conflict. So I'm going to fill out this worksheet with Elias's information. Most of his attributes are already figured out by the second book, but this will really help us figure out how those work with his goal, motivation, and conflict for the second book. Elias is 20 years old. He is a Marshall, he's a male. His appearance is very specific. He's six foot four, he's 200 pounds, he has black hair, brown skin, gray eyes. He's heavily muscled. He's a total hottie. His family is Gens Veturia, his orientation is straight, he is wealthy and his education is that he has been training at Blackcliff Academy for 14 years. So Elias is 20 years old and his age factors into his goal to some degree, because he was supposed to graduate, he didn't. Instead, he escaped. The fact that he's a martial factors into his goal, but it more factors into his conflict, and the reason why is because he's very identifiable. He's not supposed to have escaped, he's not supposed to be in the areas that he's in, and he's being hunted because of who he is. His gender is not necessarily important to the goal, motivation, and conflict, not every single attribute has to work in tandem with the goal, motivation, and conflict. Sometimes it's just a few things that really stand out. Elias's appearance is a big part of his goal and his conflict. So the fact that he's a marshal, that he has his mother's eyes is a big part of the reason that he's driven to help people. He's reminded of his mother who was not a good person every time he looks in the mirror. Elias's family is a big part of his goal, and it's a big part of his motivation and it's a big part of his conflict. The reason why is that his family is the big part of the reason why Elias brother is even in prison. His family is also a big part of the reason why he's being hunted. The last thing I want to touch on is that Elias's education is really tied to his goal and his conflict. The reason that Elias would be able to break Lia's brother out of prison is because he has the training for it and the conflict. The reason why he's being hunted is because he was in the school for 14 years with his former friend who's hunting him. It's good to think through all of the attributes to make as full a character as possible. For example, Elias is straight and while that didn't necessarily play into the reason why, he promised Lia that he would help break her brother out of prison. It's definitely the reason why he keeps going, because he does like her, he is attracted to her, and he wants to help her. So definitely, be intentional as you fill out these attributes, think about how each one affects your character's goal, motivation, and conflict. So once you have your character's goal, motivation, and conflict and you have their key attributes, you can really start to imagine them as people. In the next exercise, we're going to be using that to dig much deeper. 4. Prepping for the Interview: So in this lesson, we're going to be preparing for our last exercise which is going to be pretty different from the other exercises we've done, because we are going to be doing a character interview. So what is the reason behind doing a character interview? Characters are just like real people in the sense that it takes time and effort to get to know them. A character interview is a hack to get to know them a little bit more quickly. When I say character interview, I mean an actual conversation between you and your character. You are going to be asking your character questions and then you're going to be pretending to be your character answering those questions. This can feel silly at first. I will be real with you. I felt like an idiot when I was doing this in my office. However, the payoff is amazing. You're going to be recording yourself, you're going to be going back, listening to what you say, and you're going to learn all sorts of things about who your character really is. So between my first and second book as I said, I was struggling a little bit to understand my characters. So this was a way for me to understand Elias way better. So that I was able to write him and write the whole book in a more authentic way. Not only was I able to understand Elias' character better, but there were quotes within my interview that allowed me to create entire scenes based on what I learned. So I want to make it really clear that you're going to be embodying your character. In this interview, you're going to pretend to be your character. When I did this in my office, I sat down with a knife in my hands because I felt like that's what Elias would do, and I first set my phone up so I could record the whole thing and I asked the questions and then I answered them from his point of view. The active interviewing a character is really enlightening, and you'll learn at turn, and it's also really helpful to go back over the actual interview because you'll learn a lot there to you about your character. So there's a few general guidelines that you should follow if you want to do this right. The first is that you need to speak in the voice of the character. If you're not really embodying the character, you won't be answering the questions truthfully, and you won't be able to really get into the character's head. You definitely have to be willing to let go of some of your inhibitions. It is a strange thing to do to pretend to be your character. I'm not going to pretend that it's not, but I really do think the payoff is worth it. The third thing you need to do is record your interview with your character. So you can do it on your phone if you want. That's what I did, it's easiest way, so that you can play it back to yourself later or possibly transcribe it or use a transcription service. It's important when we do the interview have some basic questions that you're going to ask. As you continue the interview, I hope you'll ask follow-up questions, but you want to have a good place to start. So I've created a worksheet that will set up some basic questions for you to ask, and they fall into five categories. These five categories will really apply to any character, and we'll just help you guide the conversation. So let's start with the first category which is childhood. To really understand your character, you have to start at the beginning. So for childhood, you can ask things like, where did you grow up? What was it like there? For daily life, you can ask stuff like, what's your job? Do you like it? To just get into personality, you can ask things like, what do you like most about yourself? Why? What do you like least about yourself? Why? So these are just some basic questions to help you get started. Once you have these down, you can start to develop questions that are going to dig a little bit deeper. So two categories for the follow-up questions are digging deep and discomfort. So let's dig a little bit deeper and figure out what it is that makes these characters take, and then let's ask questions that make them uncomfortable. So under dig deep, we can ask things like, what's the worst thing you've ever done to another human? Who do you love most in the world? To make your characters uncomfortable, we can ask things like, tell me a memory you wish you could erase, and what's your greatest fear? So have some starter questions that can help you get into your character, and then create some deeper follow-up questions that can help you understand them more fully. So once you have these questions down, you're ready to interview your character. If you get stuck or if you find you're having a hard time, there's a couple of things you can do. One, you can ask a friend to do the interview with you. So you can have them ask you the questions. I prefer asking the questions myself, but if you're stuck, that's a good way to get unstuck. If you're really struggling, something I found helpful was actually asking these questions of someone I knew, because it helped me understand how real people actually answer these questions. Once I got into the habit of how that sounded, I was able to answer the questions from my character's point of view a little easier. So now you're ready for the interview. A few things to make sure you have squared away. Have your list of questions ready, have a recording device ready. You can just use the voice memos function on your phone. I find that can be helpful to have a proper to just something to help you get into your character. So now, I'm going to take a few minutes to get into character. I need you to imagine me as a 644 or 200 pounds super-rich soldier, with a British accent. I'll see you on the other side. 5. Conducting the Interview: Hey Elias. Thank you so much for sitting down with me. I'm pretty excited to talk to you. My name is Sabaa, I'm the person who has been making your life really difficult. So I'm kind of sorry for that, but not like that sorry to be honest. Anyway, thanks for sitting down with me. I have some questions for you. I'm going to start with some really basic stuff. What is your name, your full name? My name is Elias Veturius of Jens Veturia. Elias, tell me, where did you grow up and what was it like there? I grew up in the tribal desert. It was hot and stark and dry and wonderful. I grew up with Tribe Saif. My adoptive mother was Mamie Rila. There was always someone around. I was never lonely. There were uncles and aunts and my foster brother, Sean. That's where I grew up, but I also grew up at Blackcliff Academy. My childhood ended the day I set foot in Blackcliff Academy. Tell me who the most important person was in your life when you were a child. The most important person in my life as a child was Mamie Rila. She was my adoptive mother, and she told me stories, and she taught me what it was to be a good person. Can you tell me where that person is today and how you feel about them? I don't know where Mamie is, but I love her, and I hope I'll see her again. What was your favorite thing about your childhood? My favorite thing about my childhood was the stories. Mamie Rila is a Kahani, which means she's the tribe storyteller. Her stories come to life when she tells them, they're like dreams that become a reality What did you hate most about your childhood? I only hated one thing. I hated one thing about my childhood. The day that I was taken from my family by the Augurs and thrown into Blackcliff Prison. That's the only thing that I hated about my childhood. So Elias, what is your job and do you like it? Protector, jail breaker, killer. I don't know if I like it. I would rather be doing something else. Do you have such a thing as an average day? No, I do not have such a thing as an average day, not even at Blackcliff. There is no average day Elias, tell me what you like about yourself and why? I like that I want to help people. I like that Blackcliff tried to make me into a monster, but there's still a part of me that's human. That part of me is always fighting to be the loudest part of me and the strongest part of me, instead of the part of me that they created. Okay, so how about, what do you dislike about yourself most and why? The fact that I've murdered so many people. What physical feature of yours do you like the most? I'm not answering that. What physical feature of yours do you like the least? I have her eyes. I have my mother's eyes and I wish I didn't. Every time I look in the mirror, I think of her and she's the worst person I know. She's a murderer. She's cold hearted. She doesn't care about anyone or anything. The only thing she cares about is power. I'm also a killer like her, and I'm good at it like her, and I hate that about myself, and I hate that about her. Okay, I'm going to get a little personal here. But if you could make like one person disappear from your life, with no consequences, who would it be? It would be Commandant Keris Veturia, otherwise known as my mother. What is the worst thing you've ever done to another human? I killed people who I grew up with, all because if I didn't, I was told I would be killed. But I should have died instead. Who do you hate the most in this world? The same person who I want to get rid of, my mother. Who do you love the most in the world? I don't want to say it because if I say it, then it'll make it real and they might be hurt because of me. Tell me a memory that you wish you could just get rid of, erase from your brain? The third trial. It was really cold that day. It was raining, and I didn't know what the day would bring. I thought it would be difficult, but I didn't realize what I would be asked to do. I was told, kill your friends or you die. Kill these friends or these friends die. So I killed, and I killed, and I killed, and it haunts me and it'll never ever go away and I wish it would. I wish I could get rid of it. I wish it had never happened. Okay, Elias, so if I attacked you right now with the intent to kill you, what would you do? Take you out in three seconds, have you been to the floor and laugh in your face, and then laugh a little bit more. What is your greatest fear? That more people will die for me. That the people I love will be hurt because of me. That I won't be able to protect them, that I will fail them somehow. That my very existence in their life will put their lives in danger. Okay, so you get to look into a crystal ball and see your future in 20 years, what do you want to see? Is anyone going to see this? Hopefully, not. I would be living far away, away from the empire, in the southern lands, where the water is really clear, and the sun shines all the time. I would be with someone I love. I wouldn't be killing anyone. I wouldn't be expected to kill anyone. I would be happy. I would be free and people who I loved would be safe. 6. Starting Writing: Welcome back. Hopefully, you've gotten a chance to interview your characters, you survived it. I hope you might have learned something new about them and maybe even something that can help you write a new scene. I highly recommend that you take a few days away from your characters now, let the interviewer sit, let it settle and then go back and listen to your recording. So after you've taken a little bit of time away from your interview, hopefully, you'll get a chance to come back to it to revisit it. You can listen to it and take notes, which is what I do, about what you've learned. You can transcribe it or you can use an online transcription service, a lot of them are pretty affordable. So as you're listening, you want to look for moments where you learn something new, you want to look for moments that intrigued you, that you found interesting or maybe you wanted to even ask more questions and you want to look for moments that could become scenes. So from reviewing my interview, there was one moment that really stood out to me. "It haunts me and it'll never ever go away and I wish it would, I wish I could get rid of it." That was a moment where Elias realizes that he just doesn't want anyone else to get hurt because of him. So it's important to write those moments down. Another moment that came out of my interview was the realization that Elias feels at his best, at his most whole when he's helping people. "I like that I want to help people, I like that Black Cliff tried to make me into a monster but they're still a part of me that's human and that part of me is always fighting to be the loudest part of me and the strongest part of me instead of the part of me that they created." So what I learned from the interview it really helped me fully flash out Elias is a character, specifically, what I learned about how Elias really doesn't want anyone else to get hurt because of him was used to create a scene. I'm now going to read a few passages from a "Torch Against The Night" to help illustrate that. This chapter is from the point of view of Elias, he is trying to escape a city and his family is in danger. "They drag members of the Tribe out of the wagons and forced them to their knees. I recognized my family. Uncle Akbi. Aunt Hira. Bleeding hells, Shan, my foster brother. "Afya, " I say, "I have to do something. That's my tribe. I reach for my weapons and edge to the open door between the wagon and the driver's seat. Jump. Run. Come at them from behind. Take the strongest first. "Stop " Afya grabs my arm in a vice-like grip. "You can't save them. Not without giving yourself away." So with the second passage, Elias has escaped the aforementioned city and has now realized that he would be better off if he attempted to break Laia's brother out of prison alone because then, nobody else would get hurt because of him. "The Watch changes. Keenan takes Riz's place. My eyes fall on a cold-box hanging from the bottom of Afya's wagon, where she had me pack the goat I butchered earlier. If it's going to die anyway, might as well be useful. Laia's words. The same applies to me, I realize. Kauf prison is more than a thousand miles away. By wagon, it'll take two months, true enough. The Empire's couriers, on the other hand, regularly make the journey in two weeks. I won't have access to fresh horses every dozen miles, the way the couriers do. I cannot use the main roads. I'll need to hide or fight at a moment's notice. I'll need to hunt or steal everything I consume. Even knowing all of that, if I had to cough alone, I can make it in half the time that it would take the wagons. I don't wish to leave Laia. I will feel the absence of her voice, her face, every day. I already know it. But if I can make it to the prison in a month, I'll have enough time before Rathana to break Darin out. The Tellis extract will keep the seizures at bay until the wagons get close to the prison. I will see Laia again." In the moment that I just read to you, Elias makes the decision about what he wants to do, it as a pivotal moment in the story and it is a pivotal moment for his character, and that entire thing was based on what I discovered about him in the interview. These exercises will help the entire writing process become a little bit smoother and a little bit easier because you're going to know your character so well that you're going to immediately understand how they would react to pretty much any given situation. So say, you have your character and you've done these exercises. So if you already have your story in mind, hopefully, what you've learned will help you drop your character into that story and run with it. But if you don't have a story in mind, I have a few writing prompts for you that you can use to, hopefully, get a chance to exercise what you've learned. The first prompt is to write a letter from the point of view of your character, that your character would never send. So I want to emphasize, they're never going to send this letter, who would it be to? What would they say? What would they want to say? The second prompt is a little bit more scene specific. You are going to put your character into a gathering place, any gathering place works. If your character is younger, maybe it's a school. If your characters older, maybe it's a bar or a tavern. Every world has gathering places whether you're writing fantasy, whether you're writing science fiction, throw your character into a gathering place and see how they react to the people in that place, to what's happening, to what they are doing, to how they feel. So these prompts can be the beginning of your story or they can just help you find scenes that you might get a chance to work into your story. 7. Closing: You have made it to the whole workshop. Congratulations. I hope that you've taken this workshop and you have come away with what feels like a really fully fleshed out 3D character. Great characters are the heart of any good story, any good book. It doesn't really matter what world you're in. Whether you're in a science fiction world or a fantasy world, you have to build characters who feel human, who are fully formed and fully realized. So I hope that what you've taken away from this workshop is that if you treat your characters like real people, not only will it make your characters feel fully developed, but will make the entire writing process much easier. These exercises are really a toolkit that you can use over and over again as you progress as a writer. You can use them with any character in any book at any point in the writing process. So hopefully, you filled out the worksheet. If you have, please feel free to upload them to the project galleries so that other people can take a look and check them. Thank you so much for taking this class. I cannot wait to see what you guys come up with. 8. Explore More Classes: