Writing Tips: Creating Believable Characters
If you spend much time at all on this blog, you will soon come to find that characters are my very favorite thing about…well…anything! Whether I’m reading, playing Dungeons and Dragons, or trying a new video game, the characters are what I love the most. All of the different personalities and development you see intrigues me, so it’s no surprise that the characters that I create and write about are incredibly important to me.
Because of this, I’ve thought of my top five pieces of advice for creating realistic characters that I hope can help you with your own writing.
First, Characters Must be Unique.
If you look around the next time you’re anywhere in public, you can see all of the different people that there are. No two people look alike, talk alike, act alike, etc. Likewise, your characters must be different from each other. Nobody wants to read about a teenage hero who meets another teenage hero who go on a quest to save the land, along the way meeting an older man who acts the same way as the teenage heroes…you get my drift.
The easiest way to make some differences in characters is by altering appearances. This might come as a no-brainer, but think more than just hair and eye color. Does your character have muscle, or are they scrawny? What about glasses? Are there any scars, birthmarks, or tattoos that could differentiate them from another character? Some of these can even give you good story inspiration when thinking about how or why some of these markings happened.
Next, give their personalities some uniqueness! Is your old miner a gruff man with a temper? What about your gentle, kind shopkeeper who happens to love cats? Not only this, but give them quirks. Perhaps this gruff miner secretly loves drawing in his spare time and has notebooks full of sketches. Or maybe this shopkeeper gambles on the side.
Lastly, don’t forget about body language! This can be incredibly subtle, but it will make a huge difference. For example, one of my characters never stands with his back to a doorway, as he never gives enemies an opportunity to sneak up on him. Another one of my character’s ears turn pink when he’s angry or embarrassed. Perhaps characters walk a certain way or tilt their heads to the side when they’re thinking about something. It’s little actions like this that will better help to make your characters unique.
Second, Heroes Must be Flawed, and Villains Must Have Good Qualities.
Nobody in life is perfect. Ever. People can think that they are, but in reality, everyone is flawed. Make your characters have flaws, as well. If you create these perfect heroes that never do anything wrong, always acting for the betterment of everyone around them, readers won’t be able to relate to them. They’ll be these larger than life characters, myth-like.
Think about Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He’s the perfect hero for the galaxy, yet he acts very quickly and brashly at times. Aang from Avatar the Last Airbender is the Avatar, he’s the one who is supposed to help stop the Fire Nation. However, despite this huge responsibility, he can act incredibly childish at times. Batman, this huge superhero, is flawed by his intense paranoia. All of these heroes are still heroes, and we love them despite (and possibly because of) their flaws, but their flaws help us to better relate to them and understand them.
Likewise, don’t have your villains be only evil. Yes, villains are bad and should be portrayed as such. However, they must have some qualities about them that readers can relate to and maybe sympathize with, as well. Some of the scariest villains I’ve ever read about were the villains that I genuinely liked and could understand why they were doing what they were doing. For example, take a villain set on bringing the destruction of a kingdom. Perhaps his reason is that the kingdom had been raiding and pillaging the villain’s for years, and the villain merely wanted it to end. However, what sets this villain apart from a hero is the way he goes about bringing this revenge. Instead of just taking down the monarchs, he decides to destroy the entire kingdom, purging it of all of the potential threats to his homeland. Always remember that most villains see themselves as heroes.
Third, Characters Must be Properly Motivated.
The plot of your story is built by the characters. Events happen that effect the characters, and the driving force of plot is the way your characters respond to this. Their responses are determined by their motivations.
Every character in your book, from your main hero to the side character that’s only in one chapter, are motivated by something. Some are motivated by their desire to save their family, others maybe by the prospect of money. These motivations will effect their actions throughout the entire book. If a character strays from their motivations, it will make them seem less believable.
For example, a character motivated by greed might only stick around long enough while the reward is worth the risk, whereas a character who is out to save their family or friends might take more risks. Perhaps a character is only out to make a bigger name for himself. He’ll do anything that gets him more publicity and admiration. Because of this, it might be harder for him to do anything that could hurt his reputation.
Motivations are something to keep in mind when writing your book. They can help you get out of a block, when you don’t know how to continue. Just think about how your character can next get close to achieving his desire.
Fourth, Characters need to Develop.
People learn from their actions. Nobody who burns their hand on a hot stove is going to do it again. Similarly, your characters must develop and learn as the story progresses. Characters who try to storm a castle and find themselves unprepared will prepare better next time or try the stealthy way in.
This development has to make sense. Characters who have their trust betrayed over and over again aren’t going to keep blindly trusting everyone they meet. They’ll learn that maybe trust is hard to come by in their circumstance. Characters may learn that they need to think through decisions before acting or learn to keep their tempers in check. But this has to be in line with the events of your plot that are helping to shape them.
Last, It Can be Helpful to Base Characters on Real People.
Now, I’m not saying to put a character that looks, acts, talks, and thinks exactly like your best friend in the book, but it can be helpful to put aspects of real people into your characters. Think about how your best friend talks, and use this to inspire dialogue. Did you ever notice that weird nose-scrunch your sister does when she’s focusing? Perhaps a character has that quirk.
People watching is amazing for this. If you have never done it, you should try it. Go to a public place and just look at people. Walk through Walmart and notice how people interact with others. Notice how some people carry themselves. Are they confident or do they hunch over and try to blend in to the sea of people around them? Just watch and take mental (or physical, if you are so brave) notes. Use these to inspire future characters.
I also find that my favorite characters of mine have little bits of myself in them. One of my characters is how I feel on a daily basis. He’s shy and insecure about his abilities, yet he learns to grow and become confident in himself. Another is based on the kind of person I wish I could be, strong and fiercely independent. Yet she also has the flaws that come with that, and those are flaws that I hope that I, personally, never develop. My sense of humor has gone into many of my characters, and one character has my paralyzing fear of spiders.
Just remember that when you are planning a character and looking for inspiration, sometimes you are the perfect inspiration that you need.
I hope that some of my tips have given you some new ideas about character creation. I would love to hear from you on your characters! What are some of your “character tips” that others could learn from? What is your favorite character that you’ve ever created? Are there any characters you are stuck with and just don’t know how to develop them? Respond in the comments!