Writing believable characters is always a writer’s goal. But as the characters shift and change through the drafting process, it can be hard to know if you’ve done it right.
The first draft is always full of good intentions. But by the end, everything has shifted from an idea shape into a story shape. And sometimes that means you’ve found some plot holes or flat characters.
As drafting continues, the characters usually strengthen, but that doesn’t mean they all become believable characters. Personally, I always have at least one character that’s nearly impossible for me to identify with. And that’s the character that usually takes the most work to turn from a stock archetype to something that feels real.
Writing believable characters takes time and care, and these tips will help you create realistic characters in your fiction.
How to Write Realistic Characters
There’s no one way to write realistic characters.
(I know that everyone who has read this blog before gets so tired of me saying that there’s not one correct way. But it’s true!)
And it’s worth noting that a believable character to me may be completely unbelievable to you. I won’t get too far into this discussion, but I will say that there are a lot of writers out there who have no idea how women think.
(I am thinking specifically of this dude in some creative writing classes I took who always wrote apocalyptic horror that ended with some 15-year-old girl super stoked that she was going to get to repopulate the world with a man who was like 20 to 40 years older than her. That writer got really upset when I told him that 15-year-old girls think 35-year-old men are super old.)
Anyway, if you want to create believable characters, there are some questions you should ask yourself.
- Go through your favorite stories and and think about all the believable character examples in them. What makes them stand out to you? Is there a quality you can identify that they all possess?
- Do you think different genres create believable characters differently? If so, why do you think that is? What works in one genre that won’t work in another?
- What sort of reactions are normal for certain emotions?
- What drives people to do what they do?
- How do people talk to one another?
- What kinds of character flaws make characters more real to you? How do those flaws impact the way the characters act?
These aren’t the only questions you should be asking. But these are a good jumping off place for brainstorming.
Being able to identify what makes a character believable to you will help you understand how to write those characters. And while it may sound like a lot of work, going through your favorite books and movies with these questions in mind can be a great way to find what makes a great fictional character.
Building Believable Characters
Okay. So. you’ve asked the questions! You’re ready to write. But how do you a tell a character story that is believable and makes readers keep coming back?
All the best believable characters in literature are different and complex. Just like real people! So the key is to think about your characters the way you would think about real people.
(If you want to create more realistic fiction, check out this post on how to tell an autobiographical story.)
001: Backstory is everything.
The strongest, most believable characters are the characters with fully fleshed out backstories.
Knowing where your character comes from, what growing up there was like for them, and how those experiences shaped them will make your characters seem more real to your readers. This will also help separate your characters from one another on the page.
And as you continue drafting, knowing the backstory will make it easier for you to make edits because you know exactly how each of your characters behave. Their choices will become clear in your mind, and you’ll be able to see them as real people.
002: Make character goals specific.
Every character wants something. And if you rely on what you think a type of character would stereotypically want, then your characters will feel flat.
For example, if you write a story about a woman who wants to be a homemaker, her reason for wanting that can’t simply be because she’s a woman. It’s reductive, and it’s not believable given how many women in real life do not want that.
(Struggling to write women? Check out this post on how to make a good female protagonist.)
But if you think about her backstory, her goal to become a homemaker could be more believable. Maybe she grew up in a really big family where she was always lost in the shuffle amongst too many brothers and sisters. Maybe she never had anything that only belonged to her because it was always being used by someone else.
Now, as an adult, she wants her own home where she can decorate it however she wants and take care of the space. She loves cleaning her home because it’s hers and hers alone. This character loves to cook because she can make whatever she wants and she knows that no one will steal the leftovers from the fridge. She cares for her home because it’s the first time she’s really had something of her own.
The more detail, the better.
003: Everyone is flawed. So are your characters.
No one likes a completely perfect character. When you meet someone who seems perfect in real life, don’t you spend a lot of time talking shit about them behind their back?
(No? Just me?)
Flaws make your characters human because real humans have flaws. Let them be self-conscious or too proud to ask for help or so obsessed with something that they don’t see the writing on the wall.
Your character’s flaw will probably be related to their backstory in some way, so check out their backstory for some inspiration.
Character psychology can also help inform the flaws. Reading People by Anne Bogel is a great book about personality typing, which can help you understand your characters better.
004: Characters have to grow, unless they don’t.
We love a good character arc where we get to see the character grow and change. Most protagonists that people love and identify with grow.
But there are always exceptions, and side characters that don’t change or grow are all over the place. Sometimes you need them there as some kind of foil to another character. Or, sometimes you need a curmudgeonly old asshole who refuses to change so the story world can leave them behind.
A good way to show some character growth is to have them overcome their flaw or some element of their backstory. But all stories are different, so do what you need to do.
005: No one wants to read stereotypes.
If someone is taking time out of their day to read your writing, you owe them a story. Everyone is already aware of stereotypes, so no one needs to buy your book to read them.
That means you shouldn’t write them.
006: Dialogue matters.
Every character should talk in their own unique way. Think about their backstory and how that would shape their accent and the words they would use.
In the first draft, you’re probably just getting the general beats down, so this unique dialogue may not come into play until later drafts or even until the edits. But that’s okay.
The important thing is to keep in mind that your characters are going to all speak differently.
When in doubt, ask what your favorite author would do. They’re your favorite for a reason, and you shouldn’t be afraid to take a page out of their books, metaphorically.
Please know that I’m not encouraging any outright plagiarism. But I am encouraging you to approach your writing the way your favorite author would.
What Makes a Character Believable to You?
What’s the most important thing to remember when it comes to creating believable characters? Is there a writer who creates really good characters in your opinion? What questions do you ask yourself to make your characters more realistic?