by Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Creating believable characters can be difficult for some aspiring fiction writers. Your characters should be both complex and natural. This can be shown through their actions, their interactions, and their quirks.

Create characters that are not perfectly predictable

Give your characters contradictions and moments when they act in surprising ways.  This does not mean you should allow them to get out of character.  Instead, push them to the limit of their personalities.  Test them.  Let them evolve so the reader is both surprised by and accepting of their actions.  By both keeping your characters within their personal limits and challenging them, you create people whom your readers will not want to leave.

Avoid the temptation of making your protagonists larger than life. 

Perfectly charming, witty, generous, and heroic characters come off more like fantasies than real characters.  Endowing characters with small flaws won’t jeopardize their likability; instead, it will give them a humanity – and a vulnerability – that will attract your readers. Creating believable characters means creating people who could exist in real life.

Choose your character names with care.

While you need not pick character names with inherent meanings (for example, a basketball player called John Netster), you should nonetheless chose names with care. Readers depend on visual cues to differentiate among characters, and you, as the writer, can help them. Avoid main character names that begin with the same letter.  Vary length and internal sound.  Characters named Patsy, Betsy, and Betty could be confused, as could John, Jack, and Jay.  If every character has an unusual name, you can run into the same problem.  Your aim is clarity. 

Ask whether multiple characters can be condensed into a single one? 

If you have a large cast, ask yourself whether multiple characters serve the same function.  For example, if you have four different police detectives, could you combine them into a single character?  If both Sally and Mary act as sounding boards for your protagonist, do you need both?  Unnecessary complication detracts from the readability of your manuscript. 

Don’t include everything you have imagined.

Characterization requires finesse and sometimes restraint. If you include everything you know, it will bore the reader. As in real life, their history should unfold in the context of events.  Your knowledge of the characters should emerge in subtle ways, giving them depth without your overdoing it.

Memorable characters are always flawed.

It’s up to you, the writer, to find the balance between a likable character and his shortcomings.  The protagonist should not be perfect but rather human, with weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.  If you doubt your readers can empathize with an imperfect person, look at Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The trick is to make these flaws inconsequential offset by stronger, more positive qualities. For example, your reader may sympathize with an otherwise honest character forced into a single lie. Or a character who annoys others by obsessing may endear himself to readers by his struggle to stop.

Certain positive characteristics can also be a component of an antagonist .  For example, an extremely ethical character might adhere too blindly to a set of rules, thereby misjudging or betraying others.

How you present your characters will determine how your reader views them.

Give characters “space” appropriate for their roles.

Don’t spend many sentences or paragraphs developing a character who has no bearing on the outcome of the story. But also be careful not to “cheat” a supporting role.  We don’t need to know the motivation and life story of the cashier who rings up the main character’s purchase (unless it is important later), but we do need to understand the personality of the main character’s best friend. 

Develop your antagonist.

Creating believable characters extends to the antagonist as well. Give him a past and motivation as well as personality quirks that make him seem real.  The more your readers understand about your antagonist, the better they will remember him.