Writing Believable Characters
By Deborah Herald Managing Editor Amira Press
Writing believable people is an important part of the writing process. When people pick up your book to read they want
to relate to your characters. In order for that to happen, it is essential that you develop your characters well. It is important
to remember that people in your stories are not paper dolls. They need to be three-dimensional, with a past, present and future.
As in real life, personality traits and actions define the lives you create in your book. Because a person's strengths,
weaknesses, motivation and conflicts are what drives your plot, without carefully designed characters, you will not have a
plot. Your characters should not be perfect, they should have real problems and real flaws. Often as the story unfolds, a
person will grow and change, solving problems and sometimes new ones will develop. Their flaws might be a real stumbling block
for them. These are things that humanize your character. Along the same lines, your hero and heroine must also be likable
and sympathetic. There needs to be a reason to root for your characters to win whatever conflict you have created. Your protagonist
can be a regular person but in some way they must be larger than life.
Books that sell well are those that are memorable. When a reader picks up your book they want to escape to another world¬¬
the fantasy world that you have created. From beginning to end, your characters have to engage the reader and make their lives
more fascinating than that of the reader. When the reader finishes your book, what they will take with them the most is your
characters. For example, there are many books that I love, but, there is one series of books that I will read once a year
for the rest of my life. Rosanne Bittner's Savage Destiny Series is an outstanding saga of two characters and their family.
Zeke and Abbie, along with their children, go through many trials and tribulations in this seven book series. But what I remember
the most is Zeke and Abby. Every time I pick up the series to read, I am again brought to tears and laughter as I follow their
journey. It is this way for most readers. While bits and pieces of a plot are remembered, it is more often than not the strong
characters that will lure a reader in and keep them hooked.
When formulating your character, you should first decide what he or she will look like. Hair color, height, weight, clothing
and body style are all important to help your reader to identify with your character. Your characters don't have to be beautiful
but there does need to be a believable attraction between the two.
If you have two characters who are on opposite ends of the spectrum, for example, a rich good looking socialite who is
self absorbed and shallow is not likely to fall for the poor homely girl unless the plot involves a major change to the rich
good looking socialite. Only then does the character become believable.
More important than appearance is how they became the people they are today. As the author you should know all about your
characters, where they were born, what they like to eat, their favorite color, age, how they grew up-with both parents or
one, abusive or happy etc. Do they like the morning or the night? Bear in mind that though you as the author need to know
all of this, it is not necessary for your reader to know it. These are merely the things that shape your character. If knowing
these things doesn't add to your story, the reader doesn't really need to know if your character is an early riser or a night
Let me give this example to illustrate this point.
From my WIP Perfect Game
"Jessie looked around the room and felt uncomfortable by its barrenness. She made a mental note to add some personal
Now Note the difference.
"Jessie liked the color blue and didn't like the plain white. It didn't suit her style because she was raised by
her mother who was an extravagant woman who liked the finer things in life. Not only did her mother like the finer things,
she had imparted that taste to her daughter. Jessie liked art, rugs and knick knacks to adorn her living space."
This example gives way too much unnecessary information, slowing down the story. Not only that, the detail doesn't add
to the story. The simple truth is she didn't like plain and that is all that a reader needs to know to move forward.
A good place to start learning your character is with a character inventory. Ask yourself questions such as;
Physical Imperfection/Would most like to change
Years of Schooling/What Did They Study?
Skills, Abilities and Talents
General Personality Type
Pet Peeves and Gripes
Things That Make Uncomfortable or Embarrass
Most Painful Things in Ones Life
Political or Social Issues Most Important
Sense of Humor (none, dry, understated, witty, slapjack, dirty etc.)
Physical Illnesses or Afflictions
Drinks Alcohol? How often?
Favorite Physical Attribute of the Opposite Sex
Sexual Turn On's
Sexual Turn Off's
Traumas/Psychological Scars From Past
Clothing Styles/Favorite outfit
Favorite Pet Sayings/Words or Idiolect
Speaking Style (loud, quiet, talkative, taciturn, formal, soft spoken, casual, accent, fast, slow)
Philosophy of Life
Most Crucial Experience That Molded Them Into Who They Are
Home (house, apartment, tenement, high-rent, low-rent)
Major/Minor Problems to Solve or Overcome
Character Growth or Change by the end of the story
Chronology of actions from start to finish
This list is not exhaustive and you can include anything about your characters past that will help the reader to understand
who they are today. You might find it useful to use a Character Trait List (I have several so email firstname.lastname@example.org
if you would like one.) Remember you as the author must know these things, but your reader doesn't have to be aware of the
entire life history. A list such as this will assist you in getting to know your characters and help you to write them in
a way that is believable.
In Summary, knowing your character will assist you in creating people that are believable and endearing to your reader.
When a person picks up your book, they want to fall in love with your character. It is important that you fulfill that desire.
In the end a well written character will leave your reader wishing they could read more, just to find out what happened to
them after the end of the story.
McCutcheon,Marc Building Believable Characters 1996 Marc McCutcheon