For me, creating characters is one of the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of writing. I adopt the same approach to creating characters as I do to choosing books to read. When I read a book, I appreciate the writing style and voice, the plot and the genre, but it’s the characters I am really interested in. If the characters are good I will enjoy those other aspects so much more. The same goes for TV shows. I’ll watch anything in any genre if the characters are memorable! Creating characters is something writers often struggle with so here are some top tips to creating characters your readers will believe in.
- Start people watching – how much attention do you pay to the people around you? If you want to create memorable and believable characters you must get into the habit of people watching. I don’t just mean watching people from afar or eavesdropping on conversations (although both will give you valuable insights into tone, voice, body language and mannerisms), I mean paying attention to everyone. Your friends, your family, your work colleagues, parents at the school gate, strangers on the street and in cars, people who serve you in shops, other customers, neighbours and so on. What should you be paying attention to? Everything! Hairstyles, dress sense and what it might reveal, nervous habits and tics, facial expressions, tones of voice, types of laughter, phrases and so on. You can take bits and pieces from everything you have observed to create realistic characters.
- Start a basic bio – Everything starts small. Start a basic character bio and allow it to breathe and grow. The basics will include name, age, gender, occupation, physical appearance and character traits. You might want to draw your character or find images on the internet that feel right, or you might want to imagine them looking a bit like someone you know or have seen. Keep the bio safe in a specific notebook for the story you are working on and add to it whenever something new comes to you.
- Allow them to evolve – sometimes you have to be patient and resist the urge to force it, but as the character starts to grow in your head, you can start adding more and more detail to your basic bio. Back story is an important factor to consider. Where have they come from? What has happened to them? Do they have a family? Friends? Are there any important events in their history that might be relevant to the story? Start adding anything that comes to you.
- Devise personality traits – in order to create multi dimensional and human characters the reader can believe in, you need to give your character a personality. Ask yourself questions. What kind of person are they? Are they basically good or mostly bad? What are their personality traits? Are they an extrovert or introvert? Are they pleasant to deal with or obnoxious? Are they impatient or easily frustrated? Do they have a temper? The reader will want to know but remember NOT to TELL all the reader these things. Allow the character to SHOW who they are through dialogue, action and reaction.
- Make them flawed – This is so important. Flaws are what make us human. No one is perfect, just as no one is all bad or all good. Most people are a mixture of both. What are your character’s flaws? Do they have any bad habits? You can think up small ones like biting nails or interrupting people, or bigger ones like flying into a rage or holding grudges. Even if your character is the protagonist and you want the reader to like them and root for them, they must have some flaws. Flaws actually make us like characters more because they make them more relatable. Maybe they are nervous around strangers, maybe they are shy and come across as rude, maybe they are not very good at asking for help, maybe they assume the worst of people or put up walls to keep people out. Maybe they are messy, forgetful, impulsive or easily bored. If you get stuck think about the people you know in your life. Even the ones you love the most have annoying habits and character flaws!
- Know what they want – this is also very important. Characters in stories all want something. The plot is often about what they want and how they are trying to get it and what is in their way. You must know what your character wants and you must also know why they want it. Maybe they want to overthrow the government because they don’t like the way their society is run? Maybe they want to find someone from their past because they have a mystery to solve? Maybe they want to find true love because they don’t feel complete without it? Maybe they want to fight back because they are sick of being frightened? Know what they want and know why and you will be closer to creating a character the reader can engage with and believe in.
- Make it hard for them – in order to create characters the reader is really going to root for, we need to make the journey tough for them. Set up obstacles and don’t make it too easy. The obstacles they face must be ones they cannot walk away from or ignore. Ensure they are forced to react to the conflict they encounter. Throwing conflict at characters is a great way to reveal who they are. Every character will react differently to conflict and its important to think about this from your character’s point of view. For example, not every character will react in the same way to a dilemma or an obstacle. Make sure their reaction makes sense with regards to the personality you have given them but also use the conflict as an opportunity to reveal more. Back story, family relationships and conflict, personal trauma, regrets, all these things can impact how a character reacts to conflict and as these very human things are revealed to the reader, they will become more empathetic to them.
- Give them an inner and an outer journey – This sometimes gets neglected when writers create characters but it is important to be aware of. All characters will go on an inner and an outer journey. Think of the outer journey as the main obstacle, conflict or dilemma they have to face. Their partners affair, their lost child, their creepy neighbours, a hurricane, fire or explosion – these are all outer journeys, big events that make up the plot. But you also need an inner journey and by this we mean how and why the character changes as the story goes on. What is their inner journey? Think of it as their inner demons. Perhaps they have always been too shy, too scared to stand up for themselves but the drama of the outer journey forces them to react. Perhaps they have always been a loner who keeps people at bay, but a post-apocalyptic world forces them to learn to work alongside others. Perhaps they have a mental health issue that affects everything they do or a childhood trauma they are trying to deal with.
- Practice dialogue out loud – this goes back to people watching. When writing dialogue for your characters it’s vital to pay attention to how people speak. What they say and what they don’t say, how they say things with body language and facial expressions, what mannerisms they display when they talk, what phrases they might use, what things they might be likely to say. When you have written some speech try reading it out loud as if you are an actor playing the part – you will soon be able to tell if it sounds natural and flows well.
- Finally, allow the characters to speak and interact with each other – now that you have created a realistic character, don’t leave them mute. It’s tempting sometimes as writers to fill the reader in on important information using narrative but too much of this can really pull the reader out of the story. Rather than telling the reader what the character has done, where they’ve been, what has happened and what has been said, allow the character to! Scenes where characters interact with each other, talk to each other and respond to each other and to events are far more engaging for the reader and can also be used to reveal character traits.
We hope our top ten tips for creating believable character has been useful. Perhaps you have some of your own? Please feel free to comment and share!