Friday, April 22, 2011

15 Tips For Creating Believable Characters

From Bridget Jones to Jay Gatsby, compelling characters keep readers glued to a book. Here are some tips to help your characters jump off the page.

Stay Away From Absolutes

I spend lots of time with my thinking about my characters before I ever start putting anything down on paper. And since I'm always noticing details about people I know and run into, I have kind of a catalog of "quirks" in my head I can always reference. I make absolutely sure that my main characters have unique voices and as I write I see them in my head, I know which ones mumble, which ones toss their hair when they talk, which ones like coffee and which ones have an edge. A writing teacher I once had told me that I need to know what my characters were like when they were seven and seventeen even if the reader only sees them in their thirties. I try to remember that. No one is all good or all bad--so my characters need to reflect that. I try to stay away from absolutes with them and make sure I have lots and lots of shades of gray in each of them.

Judy Larsen

Getting A Visual

My tip is to see my character in my mind. I'm very visual, so unless I can picture them as clearly as if they are standing in front of me, I can't write characters. Once I get a picture, I find all the necessary background info - what kind of car they drive, what they like to eat - snaps into place quickly.

Sarah Pekkanen

Living Vicariously Through Characters

I find that when I develop characters with big and small questions about life and love that I myself have, they come more alive for me and therefore more alive on the page. I once lived vicariously through one character of mine, sending her off to see what would happen (with regard to something that I was very conflicted about it In Real Life. Fiction is amazing like that. –

Melissa Senate

Believe in Them

I had a writing instructor tell the class to do numerology on each character. I've heard some people say to do an astrological chart. (I know - remember, I lived in Santa Fe for a bit) I know some writers who write very detailed character sketches. Or those ubiquitous email and now fb questionairres (chocolate or vanilla, red or white wine, etc). Bottom line for me is if I believe and believe in my characters as well-rounded humans, I think my readers will believe too.

Amy Bourett

The Four Things I Must Know About My Main Character

Before I pen a word, I need to know four things about my protagonist. (Other details come after a couple of drafts.)

1. What problem does the main character have at the beginning of the novel? Something must be wrong about her life from the onset, otherwise she wouldn’t need to go on the adventure I have in mind for her. Ex. Scarlett’s problem is that her beloved Ashley is marrying Melanie.

2. What is the protag’s fatal flaw? In other words, what will need to be fixed by the end of the novel so my character will have an arc? Ex. Scarlett is conniving and will use and hurt others to get what she wants.

3. What is the character’s desire? The desire needs to tangible, rather than intangible. (For instance a character shouldn’t merely want to be a “good person” instead, maybe she wants to a nun.) The character’s desire is usually the spine of the whole novel. Ex: Scarlett wants Ashley and her desire line drives almost all her actions in the book. A desire line also creates empathy in readers. We might not like Scarlett but we understand her need for something she can’t have and that’s she proactive about going after it.

4. What is the character’s inner need? This is likely to be at odds with the character’s desire line and the main character won’t learn it until near the end of the novel. Ex. Scarlett needs a man as strong as she is and Ashley doesn’t fit the bill.

Karin Gillespie

Stealing From Real Life

The first two things that I focus on are the character's physical ticks and internal dialogue.

I also like to steal from real life. I know it’s a bit unfair...maybe even cheating but when I am out in the world I watch people. I look at how people move their body when they express a particular set of emotions. I try to create a physical dictionary that I can pull form that doesn't just include my own visual ticks because really how many times can multiple characters bite their bottom lip when they are nervous? Which is what I do.)

I also enjoy thinking about the duality of humanity. The conservative Christian who is a closet pornography addict. The stay at home mom who appears to be so put together but is also an alcoholic. The family that belongs to an exclusive country club but has no money to buy groceries. I like to explore the front of the building (ie the part we show to the world with the pretty paint and flowers) vs the back of the building (where the stinky garbage and rats hang out). I find this duality an area of intense interest for me and a fountain of conflict both internally and externally for a character.

I then find that I have to write myself into knowing my character. I can noodle them for a long time. I also have found in this latest manuscript that I can get to know them through outlining my story. It often takes about 25,000 words for me to feel like the character is truly speaking or maybe, it just takes that long for me to get out of the way and actually listen to the character's voice.

Maggie Marr

The Devil’s in the Details

Draw from life. Certainly not the entire character, but pieces of reality can make for a great composite. For example, I once had a doctor whose trademark was the rolled up sleeves of his dress shirt. It was something that conveyed confidence. IDK, maybe it conveyed the ultimate combo: smart hard working guy. Anyway, I ended up putting those rolled up sleeves, plus his forearms, on Michael Wells, a character from BEAUTIFUL DISASTER. I don’t know that I ever mention the shirt sleeves in the book, but the image was ever present when I wrote about Michael. If the character is real to me, it’s that much easier to make him real for the reader.

Laura Spinella

Spilling Secrets

I have writer-friends who do all kinds of things to figure out who their characters are, including writing detailed notes on index cards, "interviewing" their characters, and filling walls with Post-It notes. What I do is to treat my characters like friends. I can obviously see who they are superficially (physical description), and I know enough about them to accept them into my inner circle. But I don’t know every tiny detail about them, not in the beginning. That’s something I get to know the more I write about them and put them in various situations to see how they will react. The more time I spend with them, the more I peel back the layers of their personality. Often, they surprise me. Of course, I know their deep, dark secrets, which I hold onto tightly until I just can't anymore...and their secrets slowly spill out.

--Susan McBride

Paying Attention

I think identifying a character's speech patterns and gesturing idiosyncrasies go a long way toward establishing a believable character. I've found it really helpful to pay close attention to dialogue between real people in everyday conversations -- the particular way someone will say something, how they use their hands, their use of eye contact (or not), if there appears to be any discrepancy between the words they're speaking and what they may actually believe, their comfort level with cursing or with certain topics. Those things tell me a lot about someone I might meet in real life, so that knowledge makes a character seem more three-dimensional to me, too.

~Marilyn Brant

The Author Must Believe

The major tip I can think of for creating believable characters is to believe in them yourself. That sounds kind of obvious, but if you believe in your characters--really believe in them--they spring off of the page, and one of the reasons they do that is because your belief in them forces you to make organic choices throughout the book. You make THEIR choices instead of YOUR choices. When you don't really believe in them, you find yourself contorting to shoehorn them into the story, and that always ends up flat. Cardboard city. You want to think things like, "Mary would never go down to the lake of her own volition--she's terrified of water and has been since her sister drowned--so what might compel her to overcome that fear?" You want to steer away from things like, "It would be great to have a scene on the lake! I can talk about that place I went as a kid. Let me make Mary go down there. Wait. Maybe there should be some conflict--I hear that's good."

Megan Crane

Research is Key

I think something that really helps in creating believable characters is doing extensive research. Read books and articles that deal with your character's interests, obstacles and problems to understand her motivations. This can refer to how she is now as well as situations that might have affected her as a child that she still might deal with. Was she an only child? A child of divorce? A victim of a parent's suicide? Look for self-help books that might explain issues such a person might have later in life. What is her occupation? A realtor? A rabbi? A nurse practitioner? Interview people in your character's field. Ask them how they got into their line of work. What are the downsides of their jobs? The stuff that excites them? You may even discover nuggets from anecdotes you're told that can be re-imagined and applied to your character or even your plot in all kinds of creative ways. I believe that the more research you do, the more depth you can bring to your characters, which will therefore make them believable.

Wendy Tokunaga

Differentiation Through Dialogue

Dialogue. What a character says and the way they say it should reflect personality. When I read a book where everyone sounds alike, I cringe. If you put a random group of real people in a room, how many would sound exactly the same? We all have verbal tics that identify us. My biggest challenge was writing The Sisters 8 series, creating octuplets such that each sister is defined but what she says. And few things give me more pleasure than encountering kids who are familiar with the series and making up random lines so they can guess which sister would say what. They never disappoint me. "What if the sky falls and there's no strong person to hold it up and I get smashed like a blueberry pancake and then eaten by a passing crow?" They always know it's Petal Huit. It couldn't possibly be anyone else.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Bossy Characters

The play “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello, is the story of my life. In the play, a group of actors is rehearsing a play when suddenly the "characters" they're portraying invade the theater and tell the actors, "No this is my story, this is how it happened." They take over the stage and portray themselves, enacting their drama.That's how my characters deal with me. They barge into my head, fully formed, and say, "Here is my story." In fact, they're so real that sometimes I have to dismiss one. Maybe he's not getting along with the other characters. Maybe she insists on living a story I don't want to write. So I'll have to tell that character to go away and leave me alone.This probably makes me sound schizo, but it's how my characters come to me. I don't create them. They exist on their own. I just try to keep up with them as they share their stories with me.

Judith Arnold

Three Tips for Creating Believable Characters

1. Be a people watcher, eaves dropper, note taker.
2. Create character index cards. (I liked this much better than just a spreadsheet because I could keep it out where I could reference it easily.) That way I could stay true to their characteristics, physical profiles, goal, motivations and conflict.
3. If it seems out of character, cut it.

-Malena Lott

Borrowing from the Style Section

I start building characters by studying the New York Times Wedding Pages, a wealth of humanity who look like real people, rather than models. Describing facial features and appearances is easier from a photograph than vague memory or imagination. The accompanying articles are a great source of background details and interests I can apply to my characters.

Cindy Jones

Myers-Briggs Does the Trick

When I worked in a cubicle, the single most useful thing we did (unlike building towers with coffee cups and pieces of paper and paper clips) was to learn about each other's Myers-Briggs type. It really helped me understand my coworkers.

Now I like to think about a character's Myers-Briggs type and how it might influence them. For example, an "INFJ radiates sympathy and fellowship and is persevering, conscientious, and orderly even in small matters. Sees value in others opinions, values harmony to the point of losing their own opinion. Find it hard to admit the truth about problems with people or things they care about. See the goal so clearly they fail to look for other things that might conflict with goal. May not be forthright with criticism." Just looking at those traits helps me see possible plot points.

You can learn more about Myers-Briggs at

April Henry

Girlfriend news

Lauren Baratz-Logsted's YA novel, The Education of Bet, is in paperback.


  1. I thought these were all fabulous, very insightful and motivating. But I have to say that Karin's was exceptional!

  2. I thought the same thing, Laura . . . have already copied it for future use.

  3. A lot of good ideas were expressed here - different ideas on the surface but, it seems to me, in the end, they all boil down to the same thing: as a writer, you have to know your characters and believe in them yourself. You have to want to spend time with them if you expect your reader to. Nice post.

  4. So great to learn so many fantastic tips from my fellow girlfriends!

  5. I will have extreme difficulty to ever become a girlfriend as such, but this is a great post and I too have bookmarked it.

    In fact I have even started to put my MC through a couple of these wringers already.

    So if you girls don't mind too much I'd like to say thanks for some fabulous ideas.

  6. 1. Reposting 2. Sharing on FB. 3. Printing. 4. Taping on my office wall. 5. My new mantra. All the above. Great stuff!! Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom!

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  8. I read these tips one by one and all of them good thanks for share it fellowship personal statement sample.