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How to Write Believable Characters (Just Like Tarantino)

It comes down to head and heart.

The year is 1944. An allied commando unit is sneaking through the heart of Nazi-occupied France. The goal: assassinate Adolf Hitler. However, to get close to Hitler, they first need to find an undercover German agent.

The problem: the commandos have to meet their agent in a pub filled with Nazis.

And thus begins one of the most nail-biting scenes in cinematic history. I am, of course, talking about Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. In this scene, the allied commandos mingle with a group of German soldiers as they wait for an opportunity to escape. The heroes cannot risk a single slipup. Being exposed means death.

The question we all have as writers is this: If we’re supposed to write what we know, then how did Tarantino write such a believable cast of characters? Consider that Quentin Tarantino has:

  1. never been a Nazi,

  2. never been a commando,

  3. and (presumably) never had a life-or-death discussion in a tavern.

The answer: Physical and emotional believability.

Head and Heart

In my view, character believability has two layers:

#1 Believability of head. This is physical realism. In other words, does the character’s actions make sense for his era, setting, situation, and profession?

For example, if you’re writing about a firefighter, your character should look and talk and act like a firefighter. He should not be using layman terms when referring to his equipment. And if your scene is about a house ablaze, it should be an accurate depiction of how residential fires are extinguished.

Believability of head is where you will dedicate most of your research efforts. As a writer, we owe it to the reader to be accurate as possible. How much research on 1940s German military culture do you think Tarantino did before he wrote Inglorious Basterds? Enough to know (spoiler alert) Germans counted with their thumbs, and Brits counted with their index fingers.

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#2 Believability of heart. This is emotional resonance. In other words, are the character’s emotions realistic, genuine, and relatable for the circumstances?

This is where lived experience comes in play. While you can research firefighter lingo, you can’t research the feeling of panic of a burning house collapsing around you. The best person to write about being trapped in a burning house is a person who experienced it first-hand.

So perhaps the old dictate of “write what you know” has some merit. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write about burning houses. You just need to relate the core feeling to your own emotional past. If you’ve ever been trapped in a bad place and can’t get out, write about how it felt. If you’ve ever been terrified of dying, write about that. Rage is rage. Fear is fear. Love is love. If you’ve felt it (and we have all felt deeply), you can write about it.

As to how, I refer you to Ernest Hemingway’s quote on emotional resonance:

P.S. Believability of heart is more important than believability of head. A character can have entirely unrealistic traits and actions, but if their emotions are genuine and heartfelt, the reader will relate with them.

No shortcuts. The reader can always tell.

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger, on page 261, a character orders the fettuccini with clams at Mosca’s Restaurant in New Orleans. A New York Times food blogger later pointed out that clams are rare in New Orleans waters, and Mosca’s has never served fettuccini with clams.

McCarthy responded with the following: “No goddamn clams! Put a note at the bottom of the page!

Believability is a continuous effort in writing. If it’s not right, someone will know.

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