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Writing Believable People

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 owl. (

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 touches soon."

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;



Distinguishing features

Physical Imperfection/Would most like to change

Characteristic Gesture


Family Background/lineage

Years of Schooling/What Did They Study?

Skills, Abilities and Talents


Short-Term Goals

Long-Term Goals

General Personality Type


Admirable Traits

Negative Traits

Bad Habits/Vices


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

Mental Disturbances


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

Best Friend

Other Friends

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

Lessons learned

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 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

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