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5 Steps for Creating Believable Characters

Unlike the millennia preceding them, the 20th and 21st Centuries have seen a boom in literature that is not driven by plot, but by character.

For example, it would be easy to swap Beowulf for Hercules (or vice versa) without really changing the integral themes of their source material; however, you’d be hard-pressed to switch Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games to Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower without causing irreparable damage to the story itself. Because of this, most modern authors and readers place a great deal of emphasis on characters who are unique, relatable, and essential to the stories they inhabit.

As authors, many of us struggle to not only create powerful and moving characters from scratch, but also with keeping those characters consistent and believable throughout the course of a story. So, if character development is something you struggle with, here are 5 easy tips for creating believable characters.

1. Take the 16 Personalities quiz for your character.

Based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test inspired by Jungian Theory, the 16 Personalities quiz operates off of the idea that personality is a spectrum characterized by 16 unique types, and all people fall somewhere on that spectrum.

When I’m creating a new character, I find it extremely beneficial to take the personality test as if I were my character, and print out the results. With this overview of a personality type, it makes it much easier to determine how my character will respond in different situations.

For example, I am an INFP; however, I have a tendency to write INFJs. Being able to look at a cohesive summary of my characters’ strengths and weaknesses allows me to develop the intricacies of my characters without defaulting to a projection of my own personality. This provides for a much more convincing and immersive experience for readers, which is ultimately an important goal in character development.

2. Create an image of your character.

Unless you suffer from Prosopagnosia — or face blindness — and are unable to recognize faces, chances are the way your friends and family look is a key factor in how you identify them. The same thing is true of your characters. If you want readers to be able to visualize them, you have to know what they look like first.

If you’re an artist and can draw characters on your own, lucky you! If not using an avatar website like avatarmaker.com can be incredibly helpful. Even finding an image of a model or actor who resembles your character can be an excellent step toward forming a consistent description of physical appearance.

Additionally, it’s important to consider how your character moves. Are they awkward and unsure of their own bodies? Or do they glide through life like a dancer? While it can be difficult to put these traits into an image, it doesn’t hurt to write down those characteristics beside their pictures.

3. Create a backstory or origin story.

Although it may never appear on the pages of your story, knowing your character’s backstory can be essential to providing insight for both audiences and authors. Details as simple as hobbies, childhood memories, and fears can have huge implications for your character’s decisions and actions.

For example, you may have a fearless character who’s uncharacteristically terrified of ships, because they watched “Titanic” or “Poseidon” when they were too young. Now, whenever they’re near murky water, they get weak in the knees and chicken out. While it’s not always necessary to explain this backstory to readers, having it in your notes provides valuable insight to the character’s behaviors and actions as a whole.

So when considering a character’s origin story, try asking yourself: What makes this character tick?

4. What does your character want more than anything else in the world?

To follow up the question of what makes your character tick, you may also want to ask yourself what your character wants more than anything else in the world. The answer to this question is likely to have an impact on how they respond in critical situations during the novel.

Say your character is a poor fisherman, and his greatest desire is to catch a tuna that makes it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Chances are, if this is what your character wants, he’s not going to turn down a fishing trip just to watch his son play baseball, et voilà, you have conflict.

So as a writer, knowing what your character wants is likely to help you determine their motivations and actions throughout the novel.

5. What is your character willing to do to get what they want?

Once you know what your character wants, knowing how far she (or he) is willing to go to accomplish their goals is a great way to flesh out their moral code.

Think back to our poor fisherman. We already know he’s willing to skip his son’s baseball game for a chance to catch his big tuna, but would he be willing to murder for it? Would he abandon a shipmate who falls overboard, or would he turn back to save her? Would he kill an opponent just to claim his title?

Where would the character draw the line?

By answering this question, you can make it easier to determine how your character will interact with others in the novel, and also leave space for development. So, if at the beginning of the book, your character is willing to do anything to accomplish their goals, maybe by the end, they’ve realized there are more important things at stake. Or if you’re building a villain or anti-hero, maybe they begin their journey with a clear delineation between right and wrong, but as the story continues, that line begins to blur.

Ultimately, whatever type of character you’re fleshing out, knowing their habits, their appearance, their backstory, and their desires can push your story from being good to being great.

How do you develop your characters? Feel free to comment below!

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