Hi. I'm Alexi. Before we get started, there's some things we need to get out of the way.
My advice is not gold. It's probably not even silver. It's not law. It's just advice. But I've been writing for years, and I've been working on this for a few days now, so It'd be pretty nice if you listened to me.
Writing believable characters starts off pretty difficult. The first characters you write will probably be shallow, and/or idealized versions of
yourself. Your first villain is probably 'just evil because he's evil'.
Your characters fall into a number of stereotypes, and become labeled by them.
Maybe you want to avoid Mary Sues so you make your characters plain.
Maybe you write extrasuperfabulous people because you want your characters to be liked.
DON'T WORRY. THIS IS PERFECTLY NORMAL. EVERYBODY STARTS OUT LIKE THIS.
Throw this mindset out the window, because:
There is one thing that every main character needs to be.
They don't need to be likeable. They don't have to be good people. They don't have to be attractive. They don't even have to be very relateable (although they should be relateable to some extent).
But above all else, Your characters need to be INTERESTING.
Why? Because who wants to sit down and read about a boring character? This is why people hate 'Mary Sues' and clichés, because they're just boring.
I'm not going to talk about stereotypes or Mary Sues (very much) because, we're going to focus on making real, gritty characters. Even if your character has a few 'Suey' characteristics, they can still be great characters? What's the big secret? Well, read on my friend.
For every good trait, there is an equal and opposite bad trait.
Is your character super-mega-sexy? Well, she's probably also super conceited. Are they innocent and optimistic? That means they're probably also naïve or oblivious.
There are several different ways to balance your character out. I'll be using my own OC (original Character) for all the examples.
Good Trait=Bad Trait
For background characters, and for simpler traits, it can be this easy.
Claire is Independent=Claire is selfish.
For more complex characters, and in most cases, it isn't this easy.
Having a very strong traits leads to sub-traits that balance the original trait out.
Claire is Independent= Claire is selfish/assertive/untrusting=Claire has high self value=Claire is egotistical.
Claire is Independent=Claire is creative/unique=Claire is crazy.
One strong trait leads to several sub-traits. You can create a whole character based on one individual trait.
The Character Diamond
This is a very basic explanation of the "Character Diamond," originally designed by David Freeman:
This trait is the 'spine' of your character. It's the main trait of your character. It doesn't necessarily have to be a positive trait.
A somewhat less important trait, but still vital to the way a character thinks and acts.
Or course, a character can have more supportive traits.
This is a trait that almost always brings your character in awkward or dangerous situations. Your character may deny that this trait exists,
but it's there, no matter what. It's always a 'negative' trait, and a character's weakness.
A hidden trait is a trait that your character is often unaware of.
Okay, this is the professional one. Any balanced character should be able to fit into a character diamond.
To prove it, I'll use a well-known character, Harry Potter.
Bravery. Harry is a very gutsy
Stupidity. If Harry was a bit wiser, he would be more cautious.
Curiosity. Harry's need to do things people have told him not to constantly leads him and his friends into trouble.
While it may not seem like it, Harry is arrogant. He often refuses help.There's also the fact that Harry always feels as though he needs to be the hero.
There is a reason behind every trait & choice your character makes.
We are built from our experiences. A character's background is the cause for their traits.
Where they're from: When we are raised within a culture, the traditions and quirks of that culture rub off on us. An Egyptian man acts very different than a Canadian one. Do your research.
When they're from: Likewise, even if two people are from the exact same place, if they're from different times, they're obviously going to have different behaviours, because there is a difference in the environment and what is acceptable. Say there are two women who were born in Greenwich, London. They are both middle class, and they have similar personalities. The first one lives from 1882-1945. The second is born in 1970. While it is the same exact city, these women live in entirely different worlds. The first one lives through WWI and WWII. She sees women's suffrage, the loss of the British Empire, and the decline of aristocracy. She sees the arrival of electricity, telephones, and the railway. The second woman lives in our world, in a country where women are treated equally, and social class no longer matters as much.
Social Standing: Another thing to consider about behavior. When you're rich, you have more opportunities and luxuries than a poorer person. In places where social standing means everything (e.g. India and Castes) this will affect your character more. Education also makes a world of difference.
Other Characters: Do you ever find yourself doing things that you've noticed your friends do?
It could be anything from saying a word a different way, to a change in your opinion. When we like people, we become a bit more like them, in
very small ways. Your character's relationship with other characters
shapes them. This is an important part of your character's backstory,
and how they develop within your story.
Backstory: We are made of our experiences. Everything in your character's back story contributes to their outlook on life, and their behavior. If your character has had a horrible life, but trusts easily and thinks the world is a great place, then you have what is called a continuity error. Continuity errors occur when you contradict yourself when writing, for example, if you have a character who is allergic to peanuts at the beginning, and gorging on PB&Js the next.
For important characters, it is essential to have a basic idea of their backstory. This is where character sheets come in. You don't need birthdays, favourite bands, and pets for everyone.
However, whenever you introduce such information to the story, write it down in a character file. This will save you loads of time searching, later.
So, the homework here: write out basic backstory info for all main characters. Note down all features mentioned in the story.
I'll list some good character sheets in the artists comments.
We do things, because we want things. Everything you do is in hopes of a
desired outcome. I am writing this article so more people know how to write interesting, dynamic characters. I have the fan on because it's stuffy and I want to cool down. I ate cake with lunch because cake tastes good, and I wanted that taste in my mouth.Similarly, your characters are driven by motivation, and until they get what they want, they will act in order to do so. Conflicting desires lead to, you guessed it.... conflict! It's great to put conflict everywhere you can in a story. It's fun to write.
Motivations, and the reasons behind a character's choices define them.
Likes & Dislikes:
Likes and dislikes play majorly into our motivations. Victoria tripped Susan because she hates Susan--> Victoria tripped Susan because she wanted to see Susan hurt. Make sure that a character's preferences don't contradict their motivations.
Human reactions validate your characters.
This is the real ticket for creating believable characters. It not only validates your characters, but all the absurd things that can happen to them over the course of your story.
Say Iris Farthing was born with bright blue hair (a classic sue-characteristic).
This is completely unnatural, and probably very frightening for her parents. Can you imagine the following scenario?
Iris's mother only shows the baby to close friends & family, and becomes very reclusive.
As soon as Iris is old enough for reception/kindergarten, her mother begins bleaching her hair, so she looks like her parents.
Iris grows up feeling very conflicted, introverted and sheltered. She has the feeling that she cannot show herself to the world, because it will cause harm. Anger starts to build inside her.
You see what doing one extraordinary thing can do to a person? It builds great conflict. You could write a whole story about that conflict.
Also note, a great part of Iris's personality comes from the fact that she has blue hair.
The bottom line is, you can throw any number of absurd things at your characters, and as long as they react like a proper human being.
Do your Research!
This is extremely important in all writing, but it is so, so, important that you research things you are unsure of with your character. Does your character have an eyepatch? Put one on for a few hours and walk around the house. Is your character a firefighter? Research all you can about training/what it's like/ things all firefighters know.
THERE IS NOTHING YOUR READERS WILL HATE MORE THAN AN ERROR OF THIS KIND.
It's insulting. It usurps your entire reality. Let me repeat that.
THERE IS NOTHING YOUR READERS WILL HATE MORE THAN AN ERROR OF THIS KIND.
Never go OOC!
This is an important note. As I said before, there is a reason behind every choice your characters make. If your character does something that seems drastically OOC or (out of character) then our belief will be shattered. If your character goes OOC
then, well, there had better be a damn good reason for it. Sure, characters grow and change, and sometimes you can mistake OOC for character growth and development. Growth and development is fantastic!
But I promise you, you will know when your character does something they wouldn't. It will feel unnatural. Look out for it!
Of course, if your character takes a love potion or suddenly looses all their memories there will be change, and probably OOC, that's a damn good reason.
Avoid Stagnant Characters!
You've heard the saying about how people change, right? Well, characters do too. When you write a story, you set your characters up against a
conflict. Each time a character moves past a conflict, they change.
This is part of letting your characters grow naturally. Don't force them to
be the same, or micromanage them. They'll start feeling fake to both you and your readers.
Some characters will change less than others, these will be your minor characters. Why? They've had less conflict and reason to change.
There is also a theory that in classic good vs evil, the good guys win because they've changed and grown as a character, and the bad guys loose because they've remained static.
There's a number of stories that prove this to be true (anyone remember the lion king?)
So, remember: Your main characters need to be dynamic. Minor Characters remain stagnant as a way to measure the change.
It's okay to base characters off of yourself and/or people you know.
As long as you don't idealize them, this is perfectly fine, and makes
writing much easier. Don't treat them as favourites either.
The bottom line is, if you want to make your characters unique, you don't need to give them special powers and mysterious pasts (although, you can if it suits you), give them character!
You have no idea how freeing writing messy, faulted characters is. It makes them enjoyable to write about and explore as an author. It also makes them more interesting and relateable to the reader.
If you're willing to take my advice, please try to keep it in the back of your mind while writing.