How to Make Characters Believable

I continually strive to make my sure my characters resonate with readers. After all, that is what makes any story memorable. Whether a movie, television show, or novel, the characters propel the story along.

But putting people on paper can be difficult. You have to relay idiosyncrasies readers can understand. Ticks, personal gestures, the way someone walks or talks, or identifying scars, hair color, or features all add to a character’s believability. Just like meeting an interesting person in life, there is always something that stands out, making you remember the encounter. A character in a story should be the same way. Strive to make them real—the more you can see someone in your head, the more likely they will be to walk out of the pages of a story and greet you on the street.

For the reader, make it someone they would want to meet. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter. To become so ingrained in a character, so invested in their circumstances, only happens when the reader believes in the character.

They must be multi-faceted. Go beyond physical descriptions to incorporate favorite clothes, food, music, plays, books, movies, etc. Likes and dislikes give a character dimension. What type of car they drive, how they drive, and where they drive can help define them.

The inflection of the voice, the quality of their tone. If their voice is deep or shrill, the types of words they use, whether endearments or nicknames. These things can also help solidify a character. Voice is important to us. When speaking to a person, how they say something is just as important as what they say. Remember that when putting a character down. An aristocratic man may dress and act a certain way, but without the condescending inflection of his nasally voice, or his sharp, barking orders to his staff, you can’t impart the entirety of what he represents.

Another aspect is how a character lives. Where they live, the presentation of their home, their neighborhood, even the type of furniture they select says a great deal. If you walked into the home of a wealthy man who puts on airs, is well-spoken, and yet very secretive about his past, living in a mansion on the side of a cliff and discovered he had no furniture, no personal items. Only a suitcase filled with clothes and a collection of books. What would you make of him? In that presentation, you have whetted the appetite.

A character is very much like a painting. You begin with an outline drawn in pencil, fill in the colors of skin, hair, and eyes, and move to the details of the clothes and the setting. When you are done, you have a complete portrait and depending on the details presented, a story.