How To Write Believable Characters

Your readers will only care about your story if they care about your characters. But how do you make readers care? One of the best ways is to write believable characters. While every character should be unique, they should also share some common elements with others. Similar characters create both a sense of realism and a sense of connection with your readers. Follow these steps to make your characters more believable.


Find inspiration from real people

One of the best ways to create a character readers want to follow through your story is to draw inspiration from real people. This should be no different than looking for inspiration to write other parts of your story — except that instead of watching specific scenes, or collecting specific nouns to describe settings, you should be looking for character types or identifying the life experiences of real people. Start by making a list of five biography or autobiography titles that interest you. Then read through them. Take notes on what you find in common — not only among editors, narrators, and average people, but also among the main characters, so that you can learn about how to create realistic characters to tell stories.

Even if you don’t think you can directly model your main characters on this framework, you can always use the techniques of these biographies to inform your secondary characters. For example, if your fictional family has a dead patriarch that is important to their everyday lives, there should be a character with a similarly shaped role in a work of biography. Even if the emotion in your fictional family is at a heart-wrenching ebb, someone in another real-life family of six will have overcome worse to get their happier ending. Even if your fictional county setting has little in common with its real-life counterparts, you can find a way to anchor it with a geographic method of mapping. Even if your fictional narrator’s personal charm or charm in storytelling doesn’t have a corollary in real people, it should be a trick of their personality that will help you show them differently in every moment of the story.

Understand the structure of real people

Maybe it seems like your creation has a mind of its own — but if you really want to write a character that readers can relate to, you need to understand how real human beings work. The simplest way to do this is to think about the aspects of personality that the psychologist, Carl Jung, identified as components of the human conscious and subconscious, and then to draw on your own life experiences and feelings to create characters who possess similar dispositions.

Take on a challenge like writing a character who’s the opposite sex of your own, or an age group above or below your own. Examine the personalities of the people that you feel the most sympathy or antipathy toward. See what particularities of their character might drive them toward the choices they did or the ones they’re making. Observe particularly interesting or dynamic people in real life who are similar to your characters, and try to grasp their motivations, or at least the things that set them off. Confer with people who have every kind of personality and background, and read about issues that interest you. All these avenues will lead you closer to a solid sense of how human people really work, and give you the writers’ tools you need to bring to life the people who will drive your story.

Validate your character

Try thinking of your characters as more than just a narrative device to move the plot along. While that’s certainly one function that characters serve, we also make narrator characters real, and therefore have to keep them true to their own identity and beliefs. You don’t want your reader putting down your book because the character is constantly doing things that he or she would never do in real life just so the plot can advance. If you’re working on a multi-perspective book or film, where you’re changing perspective, it’s especially critical to make certain your characters are constantly behaving and thinking like themselves. Think back to the best movie you’ve seen, and consider what really made the characters real and memorable. What actions did they take? What beliefs did they hold? These are traits you can start developing in your characters at the beginning– traits you can shape as your story progresses and challenge your characters by throwing obstacles in their way to see how they will handle them.

Most characters in a story need to be an active agent, making choices and decisions in order to drive the plot. Make sure the choices your characters are making are ones that you think they would make, based on their established traits. But don’t forget– you need to get some action from your characters too. You need some show, not just tell. Make your characters active in the plot. Give them objectives and motivations, just like the antagonist has motivations and objectives. You can’t just have your characters standing around letting everything happen to them. 

Explore the micro story of your character

If you want to build believable characters, you have to take time to explore every aspect of what makes them tick. Get specific. If you’re writing a book with urban fantasy elements, learn about the real-life location where they live — what do people eat over the breakfast table? Wander around and listen to conversations on the street. It might seem like an excessive to give your character a full work history, an entire life story — and it’s probably too much work to write about all of this in detail. But jumping into the scene feeling unprepared will give you an excuse to let your character show through.

 Get to writing—you’ve come this far. Start by getting an idea of where your character comes from, or you might end up with characters that have no place to call home, floating like vehicles with out-of-gas karma. Set the roots by discovering their background. Spend some time asking yourself questions about where they’re from — is it a school, a neighborhood, a trailer park, a mansion? After that, start digging into the world of where they fit in. How did they get into school? What sports teams do they play on, and which do they hate? What TV shows do they talk about, or political issues? Do they consider themselves religious? Who is their hometown hero? If you intentionally fill them out from the start, there won’t be a brick-sized swath that you can throw into the future later on.

Give them real, human emotions

Even complicated, multi-faceted characters need a central emotional core, but if you have too many strong emotions at the same time, it can be confusing what will affect your character the most and what he or she will do next. And if you don’t understand your characters’ core emotions — their most essential, gut-level feelings about the world — confusion will abound. To make your characters’ reactions seem more human, you can play ‘human computers,’ writing out contexts and scene situations, and then adding the human gut-level feeling you’d feel in the same situation. This technique helps you put your characters in real-life situations that other people have faced, and by understanding their gut-level feelings about the situations, you can make them more relatable and believable.

As you work on your second and third drafts, you’ll likely figure out all the feels for your characters as you further develop their personalities, so start making notes about their feelings early on. Make note of the fact that some characters seem to have most of their feelings about the world already in place, while the emotions of others will grow and transform as they interact with their worlds. Think of every interaction the characters have with others and the world at large as an opportunity to play with each character’s emotions.

Identify your character’s motivation

It’s crucial to what kind of character will show up on your page that you delve beneath the surface of what might be motivating them to do what they do. The situation may dictate what they do, but what moves them to action? You want to try to get at the heart of why your character finds what he/she finds important enough to act upon. If they’re saving the kingdom, why? What’s at stake for them? If they’re pirates, why are they out there in the ocean instead of on solid ground? Where does their ambition or bravado come from? If it’s all motivated by fear, what do they fear? If they’re looking for love, why aren’t they having any luck with it? What are they putting out there for the world and holding back? If your character is motivated by love, why aren’t they getting the love they want? What are they projecting? You want to ask these questions, especially as you approach the climax in each story. There’s a chance to explore their motives right up until the end.

Remember that, also, characters are acting because they want something. This is, again, entirely human. If characters don’t act, then there is no story, and there is no conflict. And it all flows from something important to them. What is it the character wants? Someone or something? Or a state of being? Is it something we understand? Or is it another world, belonging to the character. Once we understand what motivates them, it helps us decipher what they’re thinking and what they’re doing.

Leave them room to breathe

One reason writing characters is so difficult is because every human being is so different. There’s no such thing as a universally perfect character — even if you manage to nail down traits that are true to the author’s self and audience, there’s still so much variability that making a character relatable means giving them contradictions. Knowing that, you’ll be happy to know that how to make your characters realistic and relatable consists of simply affording them the room to breathe and be human. That means no great flaw or greatness that singles your character out as the protagonist or antagonist. No outlier traits that make your character unbelievable to others, and especially to themselves. No one perfect thing or no one great one thing, and no one vitally important thing. No cookie-cutter stories. No stock plot points. Just the seeming normal and human thing people do every day.

This means 1) going easy on your characters and 2) going generous with humanity. Let your characters’ human speech show a range of dialect, both in vocabulary and syntax, and shy away from exaggeration. Charity goes a long way toward showing your characters as normal and relatable. So does giving your reader insight into your characters’ intentions. That means choosing untangling descriptions for self-reflection, identity, and choice. And it also means giving your character reason to doubt themselves. Giving characters room to breathe will make your readers hungry for breathless moments by the end of your book.

Never back down from hard choices

This may sound odd, but one of the worst ways to write believable characters is to carefully develop a character sketch and stick to it. For example, let’s say we have a kind, freckle-faced 11 year-old called Wendy. No matter what happens to her throughout the story, or who she meets or quarrels with, she will always be kind to everyone. But what if we make her kind one moment and it creates an awkward scene — what are some ways around this? You could have her be kind to one person, but not another. This keeps her consistent, but also shows that she has depth — if Wendy saw her grandmother in pain, she may always be kind to her, even when her family makes her angry. This kind of depth makes your characters come alive. Complexity makes stories more interesting, more well-rounded and three dimensions, and more likely to be really interesting.

Another way to make your characters more interesting is to give them flaws. It’s a fact that most people just aren’t perfect — neither are most characters. A character who considers herself to be the model of selflessness, but who doesn’t consider the needs of others, may appear to be altruistic on the surface, but is in fact faithless in her actions, and therefore self-absorbed and self-seeking. If Wendy makes sure to thank her boss at a job-interview, but forgets to thank her interviewer, she appears to be courteous, but also rude, which isn’t very likeable. Wendy may be well intentioned, but she’s still a hypocrite. An ambitious, spoiled heir who finds a sick, starving homeless person and helps them out anyway because it’s the right thing to do — this is a very likeable character in my opinion — flawed, but uncynical and willing to work for it, and to recognize the world is more complex than it appears.

Play internal conflict against external conflict

This means that your people, even if they take their external conflicts in stride, should still suffer in silence about other aspects of their lives. If your protagonist is suffering from work-related anxiety and insomnia, you may conflict this with their handling of the external problems — but it’s equally likely that they’ll continue to suffer, and this suffering will drive some of their key decisions and actions. It’s also important that even in the presence of a lack of external conflict, characters still have a drive to make difficult decisions, and act upon them ef

Meddling parents and unnecessary love interests can be the bane of great characters, especially when they’re obvious. If this is something that happened to you as a reader, then you know how irritating and distracting it can be, when a minor plot point becomes a central conflict in the story you were so invested in. Whether you’re writing stories peopled by impressive and grandiose heroes, or you’re crafting memorable vignettes from the lives of overlooked minor characters, be certain that even the smallest roles play a necessary role in the whole of the story. And if not, set it aside — it’s better to have a great story with no minor roles than a long list of characters that exist only to solve the writer’s problems.

In the end, it’s a careful balance. While you want to dot your character’s lives with interesting details that make them feel like real people, you don’t want to bog them down with too many characteristics or hobbies that don’t move the plot forward. After all, it’s the changes inside a character you’re writing about. A character can’t change if she’s always in the same place. If you have to make a hard choice about which details to cut, pull back first from the character traits that are most familiar to you — the ones you can see yourself having, or wish you could have in real life. Instead, you should hone in on traits that a character can only have if she is under a lot of pressure, and going through a period of transformation. People learn new things about themselves during crises, and this is where the most interesting character development happens. So the next time you’re stuck on how to write believable, complex characters, remember that all they need are struggles they are actively working to overcome, and defining characteristics that come from their situation instead of their past. With all these in mind, you can build characters that make your readers root for them time and time again.

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