How to Create Believable Characters for Your Novel
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Why is Creating Believable Characters Important?
Characters are the most important component of a novel. They're what makes your story come alive. Characters can be heroes or villains, lovable or despicable, everyday people or the utterly bizarre, but without well-developed characters, your story will feel flat and uninteresting.
Believable characters show an aspect of life that readers can either relate to or understand. The more readers can connect with the character, the easier it is for them to empathise with them. It also makes it more likely that they will continue reading about your character's adventures instead of stopping early in the story.
But what makes a character realistic, and how can you make your characters interesting?
Three-Dimensional Characters are the Most Compelling
Three-dimensional characters are the most interesting and, as a result, readers create stronger emotional connections. Anything else and readers feel emotionally detached.
How many times have you watched one of those big-spectacle Hollywood movies but come away knowing little more about the characters than you did at the beginning? That's not to say that these movies aren't enjoyable, but chances are you'll remember the set pieces more than the characters themselves.
Now have a think about the characters that have stuck with you long after a story ends. What challenged them? What did they challenge? How did they grow throughout the story? What was it they said or did that engaged you?
The creation of a character’s personality, background, and development is essential to the story.
How to Create Emotional Complexity in Your Characters
The most striking aspect of human beings is the fact that we are emotional. Without diligent character development, a character's emotions can be difficult to grasp and even harder to convey. However, with some research and careful thought, it is possible to create an emotional depth in your characters that will make them more realistic and relatable.
Consider what makes your characters tick. Why do they act in a particular way? What are their values? What are the internal obstacles stopping them from getting what they want? How does this translate into their interactions with other characters in the book?
Readers would want to know who they are reading about, what makes them stand out from other characters, what their role is, and how they change as the story progresses.
Emotional complexity in characters is created by making sure there are unique traits exhibited throughout the character's life span or various periods of time. Creating an emotional depth in your characters requires a deep understanding of what emotions are present at different points in time for them psychologically.
Try some exercises from David Corbett's The Art of Character:
Select three characters from a work of fiction or a film you've recently enjoyed and ask if they exhibit any of the following contradictions: physical, ironic, or comic juxtaposition; need the serve multiple roles; competing morals or goals; a secret or deceit; conscious versus unconscious traits; dispositional or constitutional contradictions.
Take the same three characters from the exercise above: Did the characters exhibit growth or did they exhibit transformation? How could you tell? Did they exert greater will, suffer a life-changing insight, or both?
In the last book you enjoyed, find a section where inner life was contrasted with outer action. How was this accomplished? How well did it work—i.e., what did you learn about the character from this contrast?
Creating Emotional Conflict & Tension Between Your Characters for Greater Conflict Resolution
Conflict is the engine that drives human experience and good storytelling. Stories need to have conflict in order to be engaging. In a story, it doesn’t have to be a fight between two people, but it could be an internal struggle within one person. At the beginning of a story, conflict is introduced and then escalated and often a character's inner struggle with themselves proves to be the most absorbing.
A character's motivation drives them to make decisions and take actions in a story, but those decisions are more often than not heavily influenced by their emotional state. A decision without emotional conflict—and emotional context!—will be difficult for readers to understand.
Many stories have protagonists with powerful motivations, but it can still be difficult for readers to understand why they do the things they do. In order to make sure your reader understands your protagonist’s motivation, you must give them plenty of background information, show their current emotional conflict, and show how their decisions affect their emotional state.
And you can add emotional tension by having other characters with their own motivations and emotional states disagree with the character's decisions and actions. Those disagreements lead to greater emotional conflict and tension, which leads to further emotionally based decisions, and so on.
Readers automatically form a connection with the characters in the story, so the more real, well-rounded, and believable the characters are, the more empathy the reader will have for them.
If you're still not sure which direction you’d like to go when creating characters, I'd love to help. Go ahead and book a free, thirty-minute call with me, and I'll be happy to talk things through.