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Writing Believable Characters

As writers, we’re always trying to hone our skills and perfect our craft. One of the most important aspects of your novel is to be able to create believable characters that readers can identify with.

This is called ‘characterisation’, and here is a simple definition:

Characterisation is the process by which the writer reveals the personality of a character

Why is Characterisation (Character Development) so Important?

If you don’t develop your characters, your readers won’t get to know who they are. And why do your readers need to get to know your characters? For many reasons actually, but here are the most important ones:

Firstly, so readers can identify with the characters. This does not mean that they have to have felt/experienced what your characters have, but at least for the characters/their experiences to be believable. They may have seen/heard about other people in similar situations.
Secondly, so they can get to know them. The better they know them, the better they can like them; or at least root for them or have a vested interest in them. Readers can either want them to succeed or fail (if they don’t like them). Either way, your readers cannot be ambivalent about your characters – your readers have to have some stake in the outcomes of your characters.
And lastly, very importantly, to create a feasible plot. So when your characters react or do something to move the plot along, there must be a motivation for that reaction. Your characters’ actions must be properly motivated by who they are – that is, who you, as a writer, have created them to be.

Remember, that for any novel to truly connect with readers, the author needs to pay close attention to character development. Even if you’re writing an action-packed, plot-driven book where the characters are robots, it’s the human element that will resonate with readers.

Characterisation 101

Here are some tips to create believable characters:

1. Give your character a goal and a motivation (yes, they are different)

Justify the character’s reason for existence by establishing the character’s goal and motivation. Your character’s current goal is why the story exists and why it’s worth telling. It’s what your character wants from the book’s plot, and what will propel their inner journey. 

‘Motivation’ is why your character wants what he/she wants. What internal and external influences drive this desire/s?

2. Make sure the character has both strengths and flaws.

Your character will need both strengths to draw upon and flaws that threaten to drag them down. Writing a character with both strengths and flaws also helps you maintain the tension in your plotting. It’s also crucial to make your readers feel for the people at the heart of your story.

Your character’s strengths — whether that’s their sparkling wit, their skill at wind magic, or their unwavering moral centre — will get readers to root for them, admire them, maybe even swoon over them. But don’t forget your character’s flaws: say, their recklessness, their greedy streak, the insecurity that makes them lash out at their more accomplished sibling. These very human weaknesses will make them relatable.

Steer clear the biggest character development mistake: being perfect. Make sure strengths and flaws are well-balanced. You don’t need to counter every positive characteristic with an equal and opposite weak point. But you do want to make sure your character has some flaws that are just as consequential as their strengths.

3. Give the character an external and internal conflict

Your character only becomes interesting when you put a few obstacles between them and their goal. 

External conflict: another person, an illness, etc.

Internal conflict: makes them question themselves, either because of insecurities, reasons from their past (backstory), or something that they have to overcome/deal with about themselves.

Well-written internal conflict can mirror the external conflict they’re facing. Even static characters who do not significantly alter over the course of the novel should face some kind of internal conflict. It makes the characters more rounded out and identifiable to readers.

4. Give the character a backstory

Just as your history has contributed to the person you are today, your character’s history has made them into the person we see on the page. You should develop your character’s past as much as possible, but it’s especially important to create and zero in on memories that inform exactly what we see in the story. Even if you don’t reveal the whole backstory in your novel, make sure you know it and your character well.

5. Develop the character’s external characteristics to make them distinguishable

Your readers need to know how your characters look and sound. This includes their dressing, how they move and communicate, not just by what they say, but also by their body language, facial expressions, etc. Make the character stand out with distinctive mannerisms. Show, don’t tell these details and layer them into your plot, settings and descriptions so they feel natural for readers to receive this information to build an image of your character in their heads.

6. Make your character believable

Yes, the protagonist can be larger than life because they are the reason for the book after all, but they cannot be so great/big/accomplished that it’s hard to believe. And, yes, we do get some superpeople (like superheroes, or a Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama), but they are few and far between. Most of us are regular people. And your readers want to relate to the characters, so they must be like them.

Yep, nailing characterisation is critical for your story. Learning to write believable characters is an art and like all writing, gets better the more we work at it. Practise, practise, practise!

Good luck and happy writing!

Raashida Khan is an award-winning author of three novels, a short story collection and a poetry anthology. She is also a professional copywriter, facilitates writing workshops and mentors potential authors.

Contact her via her website: www.raashisreflections.com

or via Social Media: @RaashisReflections / RaashisReflect

Raashida Khan Editor and Proof Reader

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