8 Steps for Writing Believable Characters
When we think back on the books we loved as kids, the plot details may not be preserved in our memories, but the characters often are. For many readers, it’s the characters that hold a special place in their hearts. They drive the narrative forward, complicate it, and give it meaning. In short, characters are the heart of the stories all writers strive to tell. This comes as no surprise considering our human desire to connect with others. It’s a great time to give our character writing skills the attention it deserves; people of all walks of life and identities crave representation in the stories they consume. And just as important is knowing what it takes to make your characters believable and memorable to readers.
Step 1: Decide your character’s backstory before you decide on their personality.
A common choice in the early stages of story development is to focus on a protagonist’s personality traits. It’s okay to have a general disposition in mind, but before you make hardline decisions about whether they’re impulsive or reliable, make sure you have the character’s life experiences mapped out. Then use that backstory to further inform the kind of person they are. Believability is rooted in realism, so your character’s life should directly influence their ideas, opinions, attitudes, and, yes, personality.
Step 2: Make sure your protagonist serves the needs of your story and vice versa.
If you have a fully fleshed-out character in mind and you’re struggling to change the core of who they are, that’s okay! Just make sure that the story you craft makes sense for that character. The simplest definition of plot is “stuff happens to someone forcing them to change things about themselves and/or their world.” Without action and reaction, you’re likely to end up with a bland story. So it’s important that your character fits in with the story you’re trying to tell. With every action, make sure your protagonist’s reaction makes sense for who they are.
Step 3: Remember to give your characters a fundamental flaw.
A common mistake among budding writers is making their protagonist infallible; they’re gorgeous, they’re brilliant, they’re kind, they’re loved by everyone, and so on. This takes away from the believability and makes reading about them rather boring. That sounds harsh, but you can’t have a story without conflict, so there should be conflict. You also want readers to connect and relate to your character, which is impossible to do with a perfect one. Your protagonist’s fundamental flaw should be what holds them back and what informs their poor choices. Most of all, it should be rooted in their psychology.
Step 4: Include both an internal need and an external desire.
Related to the fundamental flaw is a character’s internal need and external desire. An internal need is a psychological need that the character is unaware of but needs to overcome their fundamental flaw. On the other hand, external desire is what we often refer to as motivation. This is a physically achievable goal that has a concrete purpose within the plot as well as consequences for the characters. A character’s motivations are pretty easy to spot and are often informed by the story’s genre; in a romance, it’s to find love; in a thriller, it’s to catch the killer.
Step 5: Brush up on your psychology.
Many writers base characters on people they’ve met in real life. That’s because those people already come with a psychological profile that you can use as a basis for all of your character’s building blocks. But it would be useful to have a general understanding of the psychology behind personality types, interpersonal relationships, and decision-making. This is especially important if mental illness or trauma makes an appearance in your story. Thankfully, there are a plethora of ways to learn: talk to people with experiences you’re hoping to capture, take an online class, read books, both fiction and nonfiction. Study like you’re an actor preparing for a role.
Step 6: The devil is in the details.
Give your characters quirks, tics, and weird habits. Maybe they hate the way polyester feels on their skin; maybe they really like the sound of nails on a chalkboard; maybe they’re allergic to bananas. These quirks can be innocuous, just small details to add another layer of believability. But they don’t have to be. A character’s quirk could give them away in a murder trial, or it could be used to send a secret message to a loved one, or it can even be the reason they win the contest at the end. There are many creative ways to give these seemingly unimportant details narrative weight.
Step 7: Don’t forget secondary and tertiary characters.
We don’t spend much time with supporting characters, so giving them complete psychological profiles and motivations can seem like a waste of time. But remember that these other characters contribute to the landscape of your story. They inhabit the world you crafted for your protagonist and are affected by the events that transpire. A good rule of thumb for deciding which characters you can give that kind of focus is to decide what role, if any, they play in your story and your protagonist’s journey. The greater the role, the more specific you should be with their characterization. Giving secondary and tertiary characters that kind of love and attention is especially important if you plan to write a series of books that feature a core group of characters and their friends and families.
Step 8: Keep a notebook.
Finally, all this brainstorming and studying should be preserved and easily accessible! You must possess intimate knowledge of your characters if you are to portray them and their stories. If at some point you find that the story has taken on a life of its own, then you’ve properly breathed life into your characters.
Use these tips to show your characters you care about them and your readers will care about them, too. Happy Writing!