The One Thing You Must Do to Make Your Characters Believable

The One Thing You Must Do to Make Your Characters Believable

English: A man trying to reach for a scratch a...

English: A man trying to reach for a scratch at itch sensation on his upper back. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Has this ever happened to you?

You pick up a book. You’ve read the blurb, it sounds good, so you curl up and start reading. To begin with, everything’s fine, but then it starts, like an itch, somewhere deep under your skin, or a sound that you can’t quite hear. There’s something about the book, something that isn’t quite right. You can’t put your finger on it, but you know it’s there.

Sometimes you feel it as you read, sometimes it’s only when the book is done, but sometimes, half way through, you can’t take the itch any more, and you put the book down.

No matter when it hits you, the result is the same. You feel disappointed, betrayed even.  The book has stolen something from you that can never be returned. Time, unlike money, can’t be repaid, so when a book doesn’t live up to its promise, we don’t just feel grumpy, we also feel cheated.

There’s an unspoken contract between author and reader that has nothing to do with money. You give me your imagination, I give you my time.  Three dollars for an ebook? That’s nothing. But an evening of my time? That’s priceless.

What Causes the Itch?

An itch is quite different from a sudden pain, so the itch isn’t caused by gaping flaws in the plot. The itch comes from something far more insidious; your reader loses faith. He or she no longer believes.

Writers spin fantasy.  Readers know that and opt into it when they start reading, but if you insult your reader, make it difficult to keep on believing, then they get the  itch.  You could be cynical. The reader already bought your book, so, does it really matter if they feel cheated? Of course it does. Writers want to be read, and they want their readers to rave, it’s a need all writers have.  Even at the most basic level, readers matter because they post reviews. Loads of cheated readers won’t boost your sales figures. All you need to do is make characters believable

But I’m Writing Fantasy

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing. We’re all writing fantasy, even non-fiction writers choose how to present their material, what to put in, what to leave out and the same thing applies; if it’s not believable, the itch will start, and your readers will feel cheated.  It’s not the enchanted forest that’s the problem. It’s the people who live in it.

The best way to prevent the itch is to make your characters seem real.

There are many ways to develop a character. There are articles on making them likable, giving them depth, adding realism by adding flaws.  Some people like to use characters sheets, to work out details of appearance and background, and they have a lot of fun with the invention. There’s nothing wrong with that, but is it the most efficient approach?

They say that to write well you have to read, so most writers I know read a lot, but they read good books. Sometimes you can learn more from the bad ones. What’s

 It may not strike you at first, that’s why I call it the ‘itch’, but it gets you in the end. The character may be detailed, but if he or she isn’t consistent, even though you may not realize it at the time, you begin to lose faith.

Someone said (I wish I knew who) that in real life, things happen one after the other, but in fiction, things happen because of one another.

 and see how many other small facts fall into place from that one.  You’ll create a consistent character and you’ll find some useful plot points to use later on. If your character really is breaking the mold there should be a reason for that behavior. That reason may give you a whole section of your story.

For example – a friend asked me to review a short story she’d written about a character who’d spent her life in foster homes after her mother’s death. The character’s father was a millionaire.  There’s a story right there. Why would a millionaire allow his daughter to be taken into care? Did he know she existed? Was he tricked into it? Was the child taken from him for some reason? Sadly, that wasn’t the story my friend had written. Her character needed money later in her story, so she invented the millionaire father.

After looking at the plot, my friend chose to keep the millionaire father and substitute boarding schools for foster homes. This then gave the character a background which seemed more believable for her profession (running an art gallery) and added a touch of glamour.  From those facts all sorts of other followed, we knew where she would shop, what sort of clothes she would wear, what sort of men she’ date.  And the itch was gone.

So, How Do You Make Characters Believable?

Creating a character isn’t easy, but it is fun. Why not have a go, starting from one simple fact from the list below, and see how far you can get without having to invent anything else.

Invent a character

  • who was born at sea
  • who hates enclosed spaces
  • who hates fish
  • who has a thousand pairs of shoes
  • who has a collection of molds and fungus
  • who has a bet zambopf
  • who has a private jet
  • who lives in a cabin in the North of Scotland
  • who is about to set out on an expedition to the Antarctic
  • who is afraid of flying
  • who wants to be a zombie

Here’s an example:

Born at sea – mother must have been on a ship – possibly – born on a cruise ship – parents wealthier than average, baby premature (since mother would not have been allowed to sail otherwise) Baby may have unusual nationality. Baby has privileged background – maybe named after the ship, private school, good clothes, college degree. Maybe the story takes place on an eighteenth birthday when the protagonist is once again on the ship where they were born.


Born at sea – The baby’s mother and father had chartered a yacht for a short vacation before the baby was born but the baby is premature and the mother dies before the father can  get back to shore. The father and baby are estranged, the baby reminds father of the death of his wife and he blames himself for it.  The baby brought up by grandparents.  As a young adult/adult the baby hates the sea. We know the family can afford a yacht, so they could be quite well off to extremely rich. Perhaps the story involves the protagonist having to over come a fear/hatred of the sea in order to save someone else they care about from a storm, or from drowning.


Born at sea. A couple on holiday are on a ferry between two islands when something causes the ferry to capsize, it could be an earthquake and tidal wave, a hurricane, or a just a sudden bad storm. The weather is bad, the woman is pregnant. In the lifeboat, her waters break and she goes into labor. The rest of the story concerns the efforts of the rest of the occupants of the lifeboat to get her to land or deliver her baby safely.

Either version is valid and consistent, and by growing the character from the one fact, the story has almost written itself.

There’s a lot more you can do.  A character’s voice and actions are important in making them believable, and if you’re a fabulous writer, you can ignore all the rules, and the characters will still come to life as you type, but let’s face it, how many of us are that good?

Make your characters consistent to prevent the ‘itch’ and make sure your readers don’t feel betrayed. You might even find it makes writing easier.

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