Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Creating Believable Characters

by Holly Jahangiri

How do you create believable characters?

1. Give Them Flaws

Believable characters are not perfect characters. Superman would not be half as interesting if not for his weakness when exposed to Kryptonite. No child wants to read about Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes, the perfect child who always obeys her parents, never has a messy room, and gets straight A’s in class. Perfect characters make for terrible stories.

Believable characters are not perfectly awful, either. Hannibal Lecter would make a lousy villain if he weren’t so…frighteningly likable. Children can’t relate to a protagonist who behaves all the time, but neither do they want to identify with one that is in trouble all the time. Pure evil is also deadly dull.

For your characters to be believable, they must have just the right balance – slightly off kilter towards “good” or “evil.” Give your protagonist a nasty habit. Give your villain a strong protective instinct for small children. Ask yourself, too, whether their “goodness” or “evil” is a natural inclination or a choice and a constant struggle.

Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s feeling fear, but doing what must be done in spite of it. To be good is also a choice; it’s not the absence of an urge to do the wrong thing – it’s doing the right thing in spite of temptation to do otherwise.

The good guy usually wins the war, but it’s no fun if he doesn’t lose a few battles, just to keep the reader guessing. Likewise, the antagonist ought to challenge the protagonist – maybe the reader even wants him to win a round, now and then.

Know your characters’ back story, understand what motivates them. Visualize their socio-economic status. Where did they go to school – public or private? What did they study, and what do they most enjoy?

2. Use Realistic Dialogue, Gestures, and Body Language

Can you imagine a nun taking the Lord’s name in vain – or a hard-boiled cop who never swears? If you can, make sure that other character traits – thoughts, actions, history – support it. It can be fun to toss stereotypes on their heads.

If your character comes from a region where dialect is pronounced, it’s important to get it right – or to use standard English and forego all attempts at conveying the “sound” of your character’s speech. If you need help with accents, the speech accent archive is a useful resource.

3. Use Realistic Props

You should dress your characters appropriately for their time and station in life. Costume History at The Costumer’s Manifesto has lots of information and pictures to guide an inspire you. A good physical description of your character helps the reader to visualize, but do not give in to the temptation to do all the work for your reader. Leave a few details to the imagination. Lengthy blocks of narrative and description can also become tedious and detract from the story itself, so think of it like a sketch – you can always add paint later, as the story progresses.

Remember that here, too, perfection can be boring – not all dresses are “beautiful” and not all men are “handsome.” What clothing might uniquely suit your character’s personality? Perhaps it’s a conservative gray suit for her (with a hot pink bra underneath as a concession to her wild side), and a Batik shirt pulled from the Goodwill basket – maybe for sentimental reasons - for him.

Put the Pieces Together

Think of the details like a jigsaw puzzle, putting all of the pieces together to gradually reveal each character. Take your time – don’t load up the first page with a detailed description. Weave together descriptive details, dialogue, and action – that will keep the reader turning the page.


  1. Thanks Holly. I like the analogy to the jigsaw puzzle. I never thought of creating a character in that way, but it makes so much sense. When I have really enjoyed books the characters began to show themselves in bits and pieces. It always held my interest and some of the surprises the author had in store only made the reading more enjoyable.

  2. Hi, Ginger! I think that's one of the biggest mistakes some writers make when creating characters - they give you the entire character sketch up front, long before you have any reason to CARE about the character or want to know so much in the first place. Character reveals itself - as in real life - through action, words, expressions, movement, dress - bit by bit, over time.

  3. Revealing characters bit by bit is part of Show, Don't Tell. Giving a character dump is telling.

    One thought I'd add to using dialect correctly is not to allow the dialect to overwhelm what is being said. The flavor of dialect is often enough.

    Thanks, Holly, for a good article.