At the center of every story is character. Characters serve as an anchor for readers and enable them to have a lens with which they can experience the story.
Without characters, there would be no story.
So then, it’s understandable why knowing how to write believable characters would be an important skill to have as a writer.
Believability is about making the reader, or the audience, forget that whatever is happening in front of them is pure fiction.
In this article, we’re going to look at three ways you write more believable characters. When you write characters that your readers take seriously, that draw them in and enable them to become invested in your story, then you’ve got a powerful skill that can supercharge anything you write.
#1 — Create characters that have a rational self-interest
One of the simplest ways to create characters that feel real and seem to act organically is to make sure that we are writing characters that have a rational self-interest.
This doesn’t mean that every character that we write has to be a scientist or professor, but rather they try and do what’s best for them.
The funny thing about people is that while they may want to act in their own best interests, in fact often they do the wrong thing.
Socrates said, for example, that man can only choose the good.
Everyone tries to do the best they can, the problem is that we all have different perceptions. A criminal may believe that stealing from someone is in his best interest because he wants their money, while a more civilized person wouldn’t even consider such behavior.
In fiction, one way you can create unbelievable, flat characters is to dislocate them from their own rational self-interest.
It’s the villain, who is a villain for the sake of being evil. Or the hero’s companion who seems to have no aims or goals of their own other than to trail after the hero and sing their praises.
These characters don’t really register with us on an emotional level because we can sense something is missing.
A human being, by design, cares about their own self-interest. Even suicide bombers, for example, believe that they will be rewarded for their actions, either in the afterlife or with the advancement of the cause they are a part of.
Typically, the problem regarding natural self-interest surfaces when the plot is pushing the characters rather than the characters moving the plot.
When the plot of a novel, for example, is so iron-clad that characters are pushed along by it, then often it can result in stilted characters who seem to have no life of their own.
Whenever a character acts completely out of their own self-interest for the sake of plot, you risk seriously harming the believability of your story.
#2 — Avoid writing characters who have one track
Not only do people act in what they perceive to be their own self-interest, but people are complex. If you want to create believable characters, then this is something that’s worth understanding.
Writing a stereotype into your novel is an easy thing to do, but it isn’t good for character believability.
We know that people around us don’t have just one way of operating in the world. People who may be sly, cruel, and sadistic often have some reasonable or even good traits, while many decent people often have glaring flaws.
If we’re to compare two men from history, one classically “bad” and one classically “good,” we can see that in action.
Hitler, for example, was a vegetarian and loved animals. While he was responsible for much of the devastation of WWII, he honestly believed that what he was doing was in the best interest of his nation and even the world.
Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was the man who is credited with saving the West from Hitler’s war machine during the critical moments of WWII when all hope seemed lost. Yet he wasn’t a perfect man. He had a fierce temper and often had periods of depression throughout his life.
George R.R Martin, when speaking of Game of Thrones, quoted William Falkner in saying that “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
That was the reason he wanted to create such complex and realistic characters.
Ned Stark, so noble and honorable that he would shy away from doing the dirty work needed that resulted in him losing his life.
Then there’s Robert Baratheon, the man who righteously lead the rebellion against the mad-king, who ended up becoming a rather irresponsible and careless leader once he had taken the throne.
George R.R Martin pointed out that was one of the things that left him wondering about Lord of the Rings, was that somehow it seemed devoid of the truths of human life.
Yet even in the Lord of the Rings, the characters have complexity. Even Sauron, who is called the Dark Lord, was once a member of a beautiful race of almost angelic-like creatures and was a master craftsman.
If you’re writing characters that seem to only act in one way or respond in one way, soon the readers will become aware of this, and begin to see your writing as weaker as a result.
In my own work, I have a small conflict between our young hero and his rival. His rival fits the usual archetype of rival, in that while the hero is creative and empathetic, this rival rude and cruel.
Yet throughout, there are moments where the rival tones his hostilities down and is actually reasonable, and only gets back into his hostile state when he’s excited or angry.
You can see this sort of thing with Malfoy in Harry Potter. Initially, he’s just the “bad one,” but as the story progresses, he becomes more and more empathetic and believable.
#3 — Give your characters realistic flaws
This idea, along with the other two I have just discussed can be used in stories in a really obvious, clumsy way.
Often when writers hear that they have to give their characters flaws, they compartmentalize it. That means they give their main character a flaw that’s arbitrary and has no story impact.
An example of something like this would be making your character “really neat,” and mentioning that slight obsession once, and never referring it to it again.
This sort of flaw only becomes relevant say when our heroine, the overly neat one, can’t help herself from tidying up the house even though her husband is threatening to leave her. She’d rather tidy up then call him back on the cell phone. That’s a bit more of a story-relevant flaw in that case.
We can see a prime example of this again in the case of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. Ned is an honest, decent man who always tries to do the right thing.
Ned is faced with a decision where he must do something about the delicate political knowledge that he’s uncovered, regarding the illegitimacy of the King’s children.
Ned, instead of taking ruthless action to curb Cersi, the Queen, instead goes to her and warns her of what will happen once the King returns.
This noble, but stupid mistake ends up costing Ned his life.
That flaw is realistic because it is consistent with Ned’s character. It isn’t some arbitrary trait taken from the “character flaw box,” but instead is an inbuilt limitation of the character’s own way of operating in the world.
In the Dark Knight, Harvey Dent is the “White Knight” of Gotham, in that he’s unrelenting in his pursuit of justice and puts real mark on organized crime within the city.
Yet throughout the story there’s moments of violence hidden beneath the surface, and a wild passion when the life of his loved ones is concerned.
When Rachel, his girlfriend, and Bruce Wayne’s childhood sweetheart, is killed by a terror act of the Joker, Harvey loses it.
That drive, that will for justice, the violence, it all gets twisted and changed. Rachel’s death serves as a catalyst that turns him into the villain Two-Face.
The best way to write a character flaw is to make it connected to a positive within the character. Every trait often has an upside and a downside.
Ned is honorable, but that honor means he won’t do what is required of him to survive the hostile political environment of the capital. Harvey is passionate about the law, but that same drive turns him into a murderer when he loses the person he loves.
In the novel I am editing currently, I have a warrior character who is determined, stubborn, and effective. While these traits make him an effective warrior, it also makes him weak when it comes to using his imagination and accepting the current state of affairs in his world, which he does not want to believe.
While we finish up with character flaws, it is also worth noting that extremes invite their opposites. The man who is overly pious and meek may find himself drawn to violence or perversion. The women who is completely career ordinated may have an unexpressed longing to start a family and get married.
Don’t bore us
The overall message of this article is to create characters that have depth and complexity.
When we have realistic, vibrant characters, then our story becomes more alive.
If you had to take one thing away from all of this, I’d say it’d be this: Don’t bore us.
Boring a reader or an audience is a major sin when it comes to storytelling. Creating believable characters is one of the best ways to avoid ever committing it.
While I have covered a bit in this article, there’s still more that you have to know to write stories that people want to read.
I cover a lot of these issues in my guide, the Seven Deadly Assumptions of Fiction Writing.
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Originally published at www.storykation.com on January 21, 2019.