How to Develop Realistic (Fictional) Characters

The long-nosed horned frog Megophrys nasuta isolated on whiteToday, 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.


Image credit (long-nosed horned frog): Aleksy Stemmer @ fotolia.com

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16 thoughts on “How to Develop Realistic (Fictional) Characters

    1. Oh, you know, maybe a frog saves the love of your life from a horde of angry snails… or sacrifices itself so that you might live to fight another day. 😉

  1. Hi there. This is a great article on character development. Do you mind if I feature it on my blog, A Writer’s Path (6,100 followers)? I have on guest posts one to two times a week. I would, of course, give you credit by name and provide a link for my followers to check out your blog. Before even considering, I wanted to ask you first.

    -Ryan
    http://www.ryanlanz.com

    1. Thanks for the compliment, Ryan! Yes, you are welcome to feature my article as a guest post on your blog. Can you let me know when you post it?

    1. I’m a big fan of breaking rules. And yes, knowing when to break them is always a good thing. As is knowing why you’re breaking them. 🙂

  2. Great post Suzanne-very motivating-makes me want to resurrect my characters from their
    Long hibernation in a piece I started a few years ago;-)

  3. Suzanne, I went ahead and scheduled your guest post for this Monday, with your credit and a link back to your blog! 🙂

    If I happen to spot any other of your articles that I feel might be a good fit for a guest post, is it alright if I feature those, too (of course, always with credit and a link back to your blog)?

    -Ryan

    1. That’s great, Ryan! And yes, you are welcome to feature some of my other articles as guest posts. Just let me know which ones you’re interested in, so I can keep track. 🙂

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