Skip to content

Creating Believable Characters

Creating your characters is one of the most important aspects when writing a book. They need to be convincing, feel real, and your readers need to care about them to become emotionally invested in the story you want to tell.

But how do you go about it? People swear on all different kinds of methods. Some people don’t plan their characters much at all and rely on their characters to tell them everything while others plan every last detail, but this doesn’t work for everyone. There is no true sure-fire way, but below are a few points to help you.

I’ve put together a list of things I bare in mind when creating a character. Please remember that this is not meant to be professional advice, but simply the way I go about doing this. If you feel like I have left anything important out, please add your methods in the comments below for a more complete list.

twilight-meme-scumbag-edward
Never mind being a 100 year old virgin, like the same human cravings don’t apply to him and he only exists for Bella. A very long time before even knowing she exists. Romantic, eh? No. Source

1) Flaws and Strengths

Chances are you want your characters to be credible and seem like real people rather than obviously fictional characters, and to achieve that they need to have flaws. Nobody is perfect, not even your good main character. In fact, main characters who are infallible and can’t do any wrong, ever, are boring to read about and you don’t want that. Likewise they need strengths. Something they are good at. I have yet to meet a person who fails miserably at everything – even if you think that you do, you don’t. Everyone has something they are good at, so your character should have that something, too.

2) Unique traits.

I read once that every character needs to be unique enough for the reader to know who’s talking without it mentioning names. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve read quite a few books where not every character has had a unique way of talking. Personally I think it comes across as trying a little too hard if every character has a different accent. Having said that, people have speech habits, so at least some of your characters should do, too. That can be an accent, finishing every other sentence by saying ‘right?’, or using nicknames for people only this one character uses. For example, one of mine usually refers to other guys as ‘lad’ or ‘boy’, while he refers to women as ‘lass’ or ‘girl’. He’s got a Scottish accent in my mind as well but because I suck at writing accents, this is all he gets. While this may not be necessary for all of your characters, it definitely helps make them more believable.

If you’re stuck, think about your own friends and family. Chances are not everyone you know has a speech habit, but some of them will do and you can draw from that.

3) Playing favourites.

Everyone has favourites. Favourite colour, favourite food, favourite people. Even if these things never get mentioned, it still helps to figure out what they are. Why? Because it makes your characters seem more like real people to you. That’s a good thing, remember? Before we can make them believable to our readers, they have to be believable to us. Equally, having favourite people will effect how your characters react to the people they talk to. They are not likely to get along beautifully with everyone they meet.

Which brings me to…

4) Past experiences.

Everyone has a history. Your character doesn’t begin his existence the moment the book starts. He will have had a life before that, too. Those experiences are very important since they’ll shape his views and reactions. For example, my main character Rachael has been a homeless orphan in a town which doesn’t want her all her life. Would you believe me if I wrote her as someone trusting with glossy hair and a great figure? Of course you wouldn’t, because that’s unrealistic. Rachael is extremely suspicious of everyone, malnourished and could do with a long, hot bath. A bit like a stray dog. You wouldn’t expect a stray dog which has been kicked in the face and shot once to happily come running to you just because you smile at it, right? Past experiences are important, and fictional characters need to have them.

5) They’re not mind-readers. 

Unless they are, of course. Ignore this bit if they are. However, chances are they’re not, so it’s unrealistic for character B to know what character A has just decided in a different town. This might seem pretty obvious but I’ve seen it happen, and it’s always good to go over your basics every once in a while. So when you write this huge, important plot twist your villain came up with remember that your main character has no idea what’s happening. If they end up walking into a trap, let them. Equally, if you write chapter twenty-eight from Anna’s perspective, it makes no sense to read what Justin is thinking because Anna can’t know. (Unless she’s a genuine mind-reader)

6) Relationships.

Most people have families, so – yes, you’ve guessed it! – your character needs to have some form of social web as well. Even my homeless orphan had parents once! If you make your characters out to be stand-alone people with no relations at all I won’t believe you, and neither will your readers.

7) Unrealistic expectations.

unrealisitc character memes 2
                                   Source

People have urges! They have ambitions! It might sound romantic that Edward waited for 100 years before having sex just to wait for his one true soul mate, but come on. No. People aren’t wired that way.

You might be tempted to create the perfect character for your main person, but please consider whether they are realistic. Keeping Edward in High School for 100 years specifically so that he and Bella can meet there by accident isn’t very believable. I don’t know what your memories of High School are but I was quite happy to be done with it. People can achieve all sorts of things when they are immortal. Sitting your GCSE’s again isn’t likely to be one of them.

8) Even superheroes get scared.

As we’ve already established, nobody is perfect. Everyone has a weakness, and everyone is scared of something. Most people aren’t going to walk into a suicide mission without at least considering their odds once. Most people are scared of death, terrified even. Having a hero without that fear might seem appealing, but it’ll make it difficult for your readers to relate to him.

9) Redeemable qualities.

You know those villains you want to hate but can’t? This isn’t necessary, there are loads of truly evil characters around, but personally I love antagonists I have mixed feelings about.

unrealisitc character memes 4
And then there’s her. Source

My favourite stories are the ones where I can’t just sit back and hate the evil antagonist from the bottom of my heart. This comes back to past experiences in point four – chances are the bad guys are the way they are because something made them that way. They weren’t born wanting to see the world suffer. Show your readers what that something is. It’ll make them all the more believable – and that’s what we wanted all along.

How do you go about creating your characters? What’s important to you when you do so, and how detailed are your descriptions? Let me know with a comment for a more complete list.

——————————————

For all of my other musings, click me!

For Cookie Break’s home page, have a look here.

Published inA Writer's MusingsUncategorized

14 Comments

  1. Dolores Umbridge is despicable and I hate her. However, Voldemort was harder because of his past like you said. Umbridge though. I hate her. I know her past. I still hate her.
    Oh and talking differently, references. People make different references based on their favorite stuff. Like in Bones the new Sweets loves food and is always making food references. Or at least that’s one of the ways I make my character’s speeches unique without using special accents with everyone. Although not normally food. But that made me think of him and I laughed.

    • Umbridge was very easily hate-able. I think it’s because she’s constantly smiling while she belittles people, it’s very condescending.

      I love your idea of using references based on their favourites. It makes sense for people to reference the things they love a lot, such as food. It’s a good way of making dialogue unique without making it sound forced.

      • That was horrible about her, I think it was all the pink and then that condescending smile. It drove me insane.
        I actually used to think of doing the same as you before, I would change the accents, make it so they called a girl lass or hun or little things like that. Then I met this character on Bones and I went “OMG! Revelation! That’s perfect! I can use references to favorite things!!” So it’s now been worked into my writing.

      • That’s how you know you’ve got a good character, Tris – when they come with revelations like that 🙂 I’m happy to hear you two get along!

  2. I agree with you on every point. I appreciate flaws in characters, and I too believe that an antagonist should have a believable back story to back up their view point. I’ve often wanted to write my story from my antagonists P.O.V. I find him interesting, not necessarily nice, but nice doesn’t make a story, right?

    Dialogue is where I have to concentrate. If a character calls people mate or buddy, I’ll jot it down for future reference. The same goes for use of a particular cuss word. Now, I’m on the sequel, I find I can write dialogue for my character’s as if speaking myself. I know how they use the language, and what they would or wouldn’t say. I find accents particularly hard, especially foreign ones, and I have to reign myself in, before they start speaking English better than most English people 😉

    I enjoyed reading this post, and found it informative – thank you

    • Thank you! I feel the same way about my main antagonist. She is so evil and I love her so much that it’s hard not to write her back story into it. I’m tempted – a little – to add a bit of her back story as a prologue which would explain her motives nicely and would be set around 50 years in the past, but I’m not convinced that it’s the right thing to do. I agree, nice doesn’t make a story 🙂

      It sounds like you’ve gotten to know all of your characters very well over the course of your first book. Knowing them on such a deep level is a very good sign indeed! Accents are difficult because I’d worry about offending someone if I represented them incorrectly. I do try to keep it down and if I do use one or two they are more made up than anything, so any resemblance would be coincidental. I know exactly what you mean about them speaking English better than most English people. My mind’s voice can be quite posh and I have to remind myself here and there not to overdo it.

      Thank you very much, I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  3. When I create characters I normally create a brief sketch that answers most of the questions you asked here.
    But I have two little tricks that I think truly bring them to life.
    The first is I draw my character and the second is I write about 100 words on how they move and act.
    This is just to make them real in my head and after that they sort of just create themselves.

    • Thank you for sharing your tricks with us! Drawing them is a very good idea, and one I would likely use myself if I had any talent at all! I like the idea of writing 100 words, it sounds like it would be a very good summary of each character. Making them real to you is definitely a great first step!

  4. Now that I’ve also read all this, I get to know my characters. I don’t write down lists of their personalities or have a checklist of everything they have to have. I just develop them in my head and I’ll just get to know them and make them real people. So they’ll have most of the checklist but only because to me they’re a real person and that’s how a real person would be.

    • That is largely where I am with my character planning right now but I do have some small lists and I can’t tell you how much it helps you stay focused. That isn’t to say that I don’t know my characters, I do know them very well, but having it all written down somewhere – short and sweet – is a big help.

      • I can imagine it is. I used to do that, but my characters weren’t working out the way that I wanted them to. So now I will write little short stories to discover them because otherwise they’ll change and form once I start writing my novel. It’s just what works for me though. I think character development is different for everyone.

        • That it definitely is, and you writing short stories to discover them is certainly a good way of doing that! Chances are your characters might change a little anyway as you write which is a natural progress, so it’s good to be prepared for how they’ll likely change.

          • It gives me a chance to discover them and form them. My character for my novel has changed in ways that I didn’t foresee during these little shorts of mine.

Get a tea and a cookie, and let's chat!

%d bloggers like this: