How to Develop Realistic Characters

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Today, I thought it would be fun to talk about what makes a fictional character believable. It’s easy to describe what a character looks like and give her/him/it a cool name. But how do you make your readers care about what happens to that character? What’s the secret to bringing your characters to life?

Okay, so it’s not necromancy. Sorry.

But here are five questions to ask yourself when you’re developing characters for your story:

1.  Why are they here?
Every character you include needs a purpose. Are they driving the plot, do they cause the conflict, are they necessary to move the story forward? If not, then why did you include them? What is their role in your story? If you can’t answer that question, maybe your character needs to sit in a corner while you think about their purpose.

2.  What do they care about?
What makes your character get out of bed in the morning? World domination, a quest to throw some jewelry into a volcano, a burning desire to find the love of their life? And think beyond the big stuff. Do they prefer dogs or cats? Coffee or tea? Chocolate or vanilla? Vampire or zombie? Battle axe or morning star? You need to know what motivates your characters, because it will make their actions and reactions more believable.

3.  Are they consistent?
This can be a tricky one, especially when you’re writing a longer piece, but it’s essential. If your character hates frogs, make sure they hate frogs throughout the story–unless, of course, they have a life-changing experience that alters their feelings about frogs. But seriously, your characters should always act in character. Nothing frustrates me more than reading a good book (or watching a good show) and then suddenly having a main character do something that is literally unbelievable. When that happens, you’ve lost me.

4.  Do they act like real people?
So, you’ve invested the time in creating your character. You know what their purpose is, you know what they care about, and you know how to ensure they are consistent throughout your story. Now you have to make sure their actions are convincing. Your spider-loving protagonist probably wouldn’t squish an arachnid. And your claustrophobic antagonist isn’t likely to take the elevator. More importantly, you have to remember that people are complex creatures, which means your characters (even the non-human ones) should mimic that complexity in their own actions.

5.  Do they sound like real people?
Finally, a word about the importance of dialogue in character development. Good dialogue can make a great story even better, but bad dialogue can ruin a great story. You have to make sure your characters talk like real people, but you also have to make sure their dialogue is relevant to the plot. Read my post, Rules for Writing Killer Dialogue, to learn more about mastering dialogue in your writing.

 

Guest post contributed by Suzanne Purkins, blogger at Apoplectic Apostrophes. She is a writer, editor, mother, step-mother, dog owner, sleep-deprived, tea-drinking chaos-magnet. Check out more of her articles and posts.

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17 thoughts on “How to Develop Realistic Characters”

  1. I don’t know how many times I’ve marked manuscripts with the comment “Keep characters consistent”. Especially in regards to personality traits. I wish I could quote specific examples, but…trust me, from an editor, we notice, the reader will notice, and it really does matter. It’s a pain in the butt to fix, but it’s my professional opinion that the extra attention to detail is well worth it in achieving positive reviews. In my own writing, I’ve used a series of character index cards that I can refer back to, in order to help keep me straight on everything from eye colour and personality, and even major events in the person’s life. And, find a good editor, of course!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great list! Thanks for posting.
    As a 5b on dialogue: “Do your characters sound different from each other?”
    I don’t know how many times I have read a screenplay or story where if not for the names atop the lines of dialogue, I would not know which of the many characters was speaking the line.
    Everyone has individualized speaking patterns, whether in ways of approaching a subject or in our word selection. Thus, after a few pages of getting to know a given character, I should be able to recognize his or her speech without the name attached.
    This isn’t necessarily something you have to think about on a first draft, but how your character speaks and about what they choose to comment tells me a ton about that character without beating me over the head with exposition.
    In any event, great post…really appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I often name a character by one of their traits, i.e., the Professor. Helps me keep in mind the things that shaped the character in the first place. Dialogue is key – you’re absolutely right. If all the characters speak alike it’s easy for them to lose their credibility!

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  4. Thanks for the tips. The biggest thing I have to remember is that even though I know my characters really well because they’re constantly having conversations in my head, others don’t have that, um, privilege, so I’ve got to WORK to show who my characters are, what motivates them, and (most importantly!) why the rest of the world should care about what they do.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is good. Keeping characters consistent is so difficult over the course of a book, and worse over a series. Of course, there is the growth of the character, but that has to be logical and consistent, too. I’m going to reblog this. It is helpful and I want to go back and look at it.

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  6. The problem with having characters which sound real is that when we write we often clean up the dialogue, so to speak. Instead of characters stuttering, we often have clean sentences which wouldn’t necessarily reflect how people actually speak. Unless it’s important for the plot, we often don’t have stammering. But including it can mean that the dialogue is difficult to read, so it’s a tricky balance to achieve.

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