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Creating Believable Characters, Part 2

If you missed the first part of this article, see here.

It’s one thing to create realistic characters, but it’s another to make your readers care about them. If a reader isn’t emotionally invested, they might put down the book and not finish the story. Here are some of the reasons we come to care about the characters in fiction, whether they are in a book or on a screen.


The character is familiar to the reader.

While opposites attract, birds of the same feather fly together. We get along with people best who are most like ourselves.

Who is the target reader for this book? Sometimes the protagonist will mirror the target reader. Not always in gender, but occasionally in age. Young adult novels appeal to teenagers because the stories are about characters who are their age who are in extraordinary circumstances. Teens may see themselves in the character, and identify with them and their situation.

Take Harry Potter for example. Why is it so popular? While there are a variety of answers to this question, one could be that Harry Potter is relatable to children around the world. He’s bullied, he does all right at school, he wears glasses, he’s determined, stubborn–and he’s not perfect.

Same with Twilight’s Bella. Why is this strange paranormal romance (a mediocre book in itself) selling millions of copies? Bella could be described as a blank slate; she has very little personality, (aside from the fact that Edward is so dominating) so it’s easy to imagine yourself as her.

Having a character that is familiar to the reader can serve as an anchor, especially in science fiction and fantasy stories. It’s like taking the reader gently by the hand and guiding them through a world that is different from their own. Sometimes the anchor will comment on unfamiliar events transpiring in the book and ask for an explanation; it can serve as a pause in the narrative so that the writer can use the surrounding characters to briefly explain something going on. This “fish out of water” scenario is a common device in many popular movies as well, such as Percy Jackson, (also a book series), The Last Starfighter, The Matrix, and Avatar.


The character is a person they would like to be.


This flies in the face of the previous statement. Sometimes, rather than reading about people that are like ourselves, we want an escape. Romance novels often have tough and fearless heroines so that the reader can imagine herself as the lady that ends up lucky in love, or in a relationship that seems too perfect for real life.

One series of books that comes to mind as good example of larger than life heroes is the Sword of Truth series. It’s a fantasy series by Terry Goodkind that was (unfortunately) adapted to a TV series a few years back. It’s about a woodsman named Richard whose life is changed one day when he finds a beautiful woman named Kahlan in his woods, and she seeks his help to destroy the evil Lord Rahl who rules her land. Even though Richard starts as a guy with a simple life, it’s hard to pick out any character flaws. He’s handsome and ripped, has a kind heart, is intelligent, and respected by his village. Kahlan is fierce, wields a powerful magic, has beautiful long hair, is respected (and feared) as a leader and refuses to give up and refuses to stop loving Richard, even in the worst imaginable situations.

It’s hard to imagine these people in real life as they are, but it’s easy to wish that you were them.

What you have to be careful of with these kinds of characters is how they grow. You can only place them in so many situations before they become stale and repetitive. Remember, if you make someone perfect, they become boring. This is my personal opinion, but I stopped reading the Sword of Truth series after eight or nine books because there wasn’t a whole lot to do with Richard and Kahlan after all of those adventures. (Of course, then there’s the final three books, which have an interesting premise, but I’m unsure of the execution).


The character does things that the reader can sympathize with.


Your character could be a raging psychopath but can still do things that make him sympathetic. He might be working towards a goal that is the lesser of two evils, like the serial killer Dexter, who hunts serial killers.

The reader must understand why a character is doing what he does. If there is no understanding, there is no connection, and the reader will give up on the story. A character might make a decision that isn’t explained in order to create mystery–as long as it’s wrapped up in some fashion at some point, that’s fine. But if your characters are running around doing things “just because”, the narrative will become confusing.

Think about your own life. What drives you to do the things you love most? Try to narrow it down to one or two words. Now choose one or two words for each character you’re trying to develop. How are they expressing these traits in every action they do? Do this with other characters you see in the shows you watch and the books you read.

Who are your favourite characters and what traits make them memorable?

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