How to create believable characters

Some of you might have heard the question, “What’s more important? The story or the characters in it?” When I had just started writing, I wholeheartedly used to answer that the story was more important than anything. “Take the world’s best characters,” I used to say, “and put them in the world’s most boring story ever written. See what happens then.” In part, this is true, but only in part and a very small one at that.

Imagine the best and fastest car in the world. Which is it today, Bugatti Veyron? Is it still the fastest supercar? You can probably tell I’m not into cars that much. Now imagine the Bugatti doing absolutely nothing other than sitting there, all polished and shining. But immobile. Just parked there. How long would it excite you for?

Now picture a Citroen 2CV.

It’s an old car. It’s a funny looking car. It certainly isn’t fast. In fact, its best feature is that it’s too damn hard to tip it over. But it’s moving. Or crawling, in this case. Still, it’s doing things. It’s panting up a small hill and it comes bouncing down after it reaches the top. The centre of its gravity sways left and right like a pendulum as it comes crushing down the slope at the supersonic speed of 80 km/h (50 mph). But it’s moving. I’m willing to bet that after you got your breath back from the uncontrollable laughter, and finished taking selfies in front of the Bugatti (no duckfaces please), you’d stop staring at the glamorous supercar and paid attention to the 2CV. If not for an interest in the car itself, then an interest in seeing how many parts of it would fall off by the end of its journey. And all because it’s doing more than just sitting there.

Pick a story. Any story. Remove the characters. What do you get? Not much.

So, if gasoline and petrol are the fuel that powers cars and almost every engine there is, then characters are the story’s fuel. Even the simplest of fairy tales and stories that parents and grandparents tell kids to put them to sleep need characters to set them in motion. Without them, what we end up with is a world that feels almost dead. Or a story that nothing happens.

So what does it take for a writer to create believable characters?

Some writers are visual people and require a picture or a sketch of the character they’re about to create. They need to see the character’s face in order to get a feel of their actions, their behaviour, perhaps even the sound of their voices. Some writers use Pinterest for this and create boards to help them visualise their creations, and imagine them speaking the character’s lines. A lot of readers are like that.

Occasionally, I do it too, but not in terms of the actor’s appearance, rather how I’d like the lines to sound and perhaps how I’d like my character to behave (anyone who has read my work knows I use a lot of action tags – which is not necessarily a good thing, by the way) between dialogue lines.

Disclaimer: I don’t imagine famous actors playing the role of my characters just because I want to see my work on the big screen. On the other hand, I also don’t object to it, so if you’re someone who’s on the lookout for ideas for new movies, let’s talk business.

Some of the writers who employ this technique swear that it helps them create better and more realistic characters. I can’t really tell if that’s true for the readers as well or not. Usually what us writers have in our minds is different from what a reader creates with theirs. After all, part of the magic of reading and writing is this.

Other writers interview their characters. The way this works is rather simple; writers ask their characters a long list of questions about their past, their wants and their fears, how they’d handle a situation, how they’d reply to a question etc. What those writers expect to achieve with this is not only to get a better understanding of who the (imaginary) person sitting across them is, but also, through the multitude of questions, to actually “hear” their characters talk and sketch their mannerisms out.

Some writers employ personality evaluation. I did this for my current WIP (work in progress). In this case, after having employed one or more of the other methods mentioned here, tries to understand their characters’ MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). This instrument gives answers to questions about what kind of person our character really is. Is he/she an introvert or an extrovert? Someone who perceives the world through their intuition or through their senses? When faced with a problem, does he/she use logic to solve it?

When used properly, this indicator is a powerful tool in a writer’s hands. Thanks to it, we have a far better idea of how our characters are supposed to act when pitted against the multitude of problems we, the creators, throw at them, especially in stories that are less about the action and more about character interaction.

Another way to have a better understanding of our characters, is by answering some key questions about them. For example: what are the character’s abstract wants? For those familiar with the Snowflake Method, this question is related to the character’s motivation. The answer to this question is always related to the character’s past and has shaped him/her into the individual we see in the story. Another key question is, what are the character’s concrete wants? In other words, what are the character’s goals in the story? This is what drives the character forward. It’s almost always related to the events taking place in the story.

What are the character’s conflicts, what prevents him/her from reaching the goals? Also, what will the character’s personal challenge be? What will he/she learn at the end of the story?

Of course, in real life there is no such thing as perfection (being a perfectionist, this should also serve as a message to myself…), so writers need to bestow flaws to their characters, if we want them to feel real. Everything mentioned above (the MBTI, the wants, goals, and needs, the psychological traits etc) also create flaws. Characters who are introverts may go to extremes and shut themselves out from the rest of the world. Characters who think less before they act may end up getting into trouble. Those who have suffered a great tragedy in their past (character motivation) often see the world skewed and ill-perceived. Depending on your story and setting, this creates a range of problems for them to overcome, thus making them more realistic.

Much like us, characters should change over the course of the story. It doesn’t have to be something big, as long as there’s change. In my current WIP (my cyberpunk story), my main character changes his view and belief about the corporate conglomerate that governs his world, but he also changes the way he perceives the world he inhabits over time. The change doesn’t have to be a positive thing, unless your genre demands it. It doesn’t have to be something that stands out like a fly floating in milk. It can very well be something subtle, like being a little bit more confident, when dealing with a character who has self-esteem issues, or for a solitude person to accept someone else’s company. The possibilities are quite endless.

In the case of villains, writers should keep in mind that every character is multidimensional, which means that the bad guys, a) always have a reason they turned out the way they are, b) should have a redeeming quality. Which also means, even a villain can change by the end of the story. And yes, this also includes turning into a really REALLY bad guy. Remember, change goes both ways. When done right, villains dominate the story and make it so much more enjoyable.

Of course, that’s all easier said than done, which is why we very often come out of a theatre thinking that the movie was mediocre at best, despite the excellent acting, remarkable direction etc. Or we end up putting a book down and never getting back to it. See, characters are the ones who take us by the hand, turn themselves into vessels, and transport us to their world. They’re the guides. It is their stories we experience. And it won’t matter if the world they take us to is the best and the events that take place are the most thrilling anyone has ever experienced. It doesn’t matter. If the vessel is not good enough, chances are we won’t enjoy the ride.

Writing Prompt 47

Audrey laboured dragging the body from his legs. What is he made of anyway? she thought. Stone?

She stopped at the top of the stairs panting, and wiped sweat from her forehead. “Jonas!” she shouted. “You better get your ass here right now, boy.”

No reply.

She shook her head and lumbered downstairs, the body trailing behind her. Where is Death when you need him the most? she thought.

Her victim’s head thudded hollowly on the first step. And then he slipped her grip. The body rolled and bounced and tumbled down the stairs, until it came to rest at the bottom.

She folded her arms, tapped a finger on her lip, and nodded. ” Well, if my touch didn’t kill him, that fall definitely did.”

Jonas materialised out of thin air and inspected the twisted body. “Seriously? Another one? Trying to break a record or something?”

Writing Prompt 43


Jimmy glanced behind him and gnawed on his lip. The shouting was distant, but getting closer. “Are you going to will the wall go away by staring at it or something? It’s a dead-end. We’re trapped. Come on.”

Ramona reached out, grabbed him, and shushed him. She traced the mortar between the bricks with her finger and closed her eyes.

Jimmy tapped her on the shoulder. “Hate to have to disturb you, weird lady, but they’re coming.” He glanced over his shoulder at the mouth of the alley. By the sound of it, a small riot had broken out not far from them and was headed their way.

He put his hand on her shoulder to shake her, but she slapped his hand without sparing him a look. “If you don’t want to end up encased in the wall, or land in an off-world volcano, or at the bottom of a quicksilver ocean, I suggest you stop interrupting me.”

Jimmy moaned and wrung his hands together, his gaze oscillating between Ramona and the other end of the alley. Weird lady will get me killed, he thought. “Come on, come on. They’re getting -”

“There,” she said. She brought out a small metallic bundle of spheres and a tiny crystal hammer, then clinked a few of the spheres with the hammer. The spheres rang, floated to the wall, and the mortar glowed. “Take my hand and don’t let go.” She cupped his jaw and squeezed. “You don’t want to let go, understand?”

He nodded awkwardly, the way she held on to his face. Really weird lady.

She patted his cheek. “Good boy.”

The bricks vanished, and a bright light engulfed them. Something pulled at Jimmy – not only physically, but mentally – a force unlike anything he had ever felt before. At some point, Ramona’s hand burrowed into his, warm, strong, soft, radiating confidence.

“Trust me,” she said over a harrowing whistling sound, and winked at him.

Minor update

I have finally managed to get on track with the new WIP (provisional title Through Stranger Eyes) and be as productive as I want to be.For the past couple of days, despite every distraction imaginable, I have managed to produce 2k words solidly. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me feel. Yeah, I know it’s no big deal, but I had started doubting myself and the story I was trying to write. I mean, it took me hours to put 1k words down, when for my previous book (it feels so nice to be able to say “my previous book,” doesn’t it?) I used to churn 1k words in a little over an hour and a half, maybe two, if I was distracted.

The draft (so far about 21k words) is still not as great as it could be, and chances are I’m going to have to revise and rewrite to similar extent as I did with The Darkening (honestly, I hope not), but I’ve come to accept a simple fact; I can not produce a good first draft. That’s fine. First drafts are what the phrase implies, meaning only the first step of something better. It’s like digging a hole in the ground. It’s not pretty when you’re done, but what matters is what you build afterwards. I still don’t have a good feel for the characters (which was the case with The Darkening as well), but I’m getting there. I might also need to take a step back from the tight POV I’m using at the moment (the same as I used for the previous book), probably choose a more traditional POV, one where the main character can have after their dialogue the invisible tag “s/he said.” But I’m not worried so much about that now. The transition, if I do end up making it, will not be as hard as it was for The Darkening. I think I have also figured out which of the first scenes I’ll delete or merge with others, which means the story resonates better with me now, hopefully even more as I keep going. Overall, I’m satisfied, mainly because I feel productive.

I think one of these days, I’m going to have to publicize the board I’ve been using on Pinterest with images related to cyberpunk and the setting as I imagine it. Are you using any such boards or images when writing about another world (those of you who write fantasy or sci-fi)? Perhaps Google street view when you’re writing about places in other countries? I have found this method to be very helpful.


Inspirational prompt 13

I like black and white images. I don’t know why, but they have a certain appeal to me. Somehow, they seem more authentic. Perhaps it’s because they allow me to recreate a story in my mind of a time I never knew, where things were different, and yet not so different from today. Bottom line is, my imagination gets to run wild. Maybe I’m a person who would have liked to live in the past. Maybe my mind is stuck in the past.

What if the guy sitting at the end of the bar was a mobster? Do you see the look on the employee’s face? What if the employee is looking at the door, at someone who just stepped in? Perhaps your POV character, perhaps a regular, or another mobster. The first guy has his back turned to the entrance. Do you smell a gunfight?

What if the supposedly mobster is in fact a shy guy, a good fellow, who just performed a good deed, perhaps prevented someone important from doing something bad, perhaps saved someone from a mob boss? What if he thought he found the only place where reporters wouldn’t find him and stopped to get a coffee? What if whoever stepped in, is a reporter and if he takes his picture, the gangsters will find him?

What else do you see?