Creating Believable Characters

Learn how well-constructed characters can bring your manuscript to life

A book is lying open on a white background. Butterflies and a red decorative scroll are rising from the pages of the book. This symbolizes how characters come to life in a novel.
Spend some time getting to know your characters.
 Well-developed characters will bring your book to life.

You're passionate about fiction writing, and you have all these great characters in your head. The trick is getting them out and onto paper. How does an author create, through word-pictures, flesh-and-blood characters that are three-dimensional—characters that make your reader say, "Oh, yes, I know someone just like that…" Our editors explain the process of creating characters for your novel.

Creating characters with care

Any seasoned writer will tell you that creating characters that are believable takes some work. It's a little like painting a picture, stroke by stroke. Characters have to be constructed, bit by bit, until the whole, complex individual finally comes into view.

A characteristic mannerism

If you watch a very good actor performing a screenplay, chances are that one of the things you will note is a distinctive mannerism that defines the character. It can be a small thing—a way of glancing in the mirror admiringly at his own image, a way of rubbing her hands together (remember Lady Macbeth?), or maybe a certain way of speaking. It should be a mannerism that expresses the character's inner being. If you give your character a characteristic mannerism, and use it sparingly but tellingly, that character will take on individuality and stick in the reader's mind.

A consistent world view

When you are creating characters, you should know all about them, even if you don’t actually express every detail in the story. What does your character like to eat for breakfast? What is his favorite color? Who is his best friend, and his worst enemy? Even if these details don't play into your plot, you, as the creator, should know them by heart, and they'll give your character new dimensions, even if they're not expressed. Sometimes the best approach to creating characters is through a character sketch, so you can lay out exactly what you want your character to be like from the get-go.

An inner life

All right, so your character likes to wear Armani and drink lattes and hustle ladies in singles bars. What's going on inside his head? Does he have an inner life? You, as the author, need to express his thoughts, his way of looking at things, his inner conflicts. You can do this through dialogue with another character, or you can simply show the character's thoughts to the reader through his own inner dialogue. When you go into a character's thoughts, you deepen him, and he becomes more real.

A base in reality

A character also seems more real if he is based in reality. In other words, the old writer's dictum—"Write what you know"—extends to characters. You should focus on creating characters you know. Try basing your characters on real people you have observed, or even a pastiche of people. The characters will seem more real, and you will have a wealth of material to draw on.

A few last words of advice

Do your homework! You may have to research your character, especially if you give her a particular profession or a context that requires some special knowledge. She's a scuba diver? Then you'd better know everything you can about scuba diving. In this regard, sometimes it’s best to figure out how your character fits in with your plot structure. And, learn from the greats.  A good writer is a good reader. Take a look at how the greats wrote their characters. Go back to Shakespeare's Falstaff or Chaucer's Wife of Bath or any more recent character in the hands of a great writer. Study how they do it. Finally, practice your strokes. You will see the results as your own characters take on more depth and dimension.

Creating characters takes plenty of time, effort, and editing. If you're having trouble developing the personalities in your novel, don't hesitate to send your document to our manuscript editors for their input.

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