5 Steps to Creating Believable Characters

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Initially I struggled with creating characters for my novel so much I was convinced that I would be terrible at it forever. Then I forced myself to sit down and attack the problem because I was tired of hating everyone but my villain. He is simply brilliant.

Yeah I know, I love my villain. Call me crazy but my favorite characters are usually the bad guys; Darth Vader, Hans Gruber, Harley Quinn (had to squeeze her in to prove I loved her before the movie comes out), Terminator, Snape (it can be argued that he wasn’t a villain, but I loved him before anyone knew he was actually good. And yes, I did put two Alan Rickman characters down. He’s amazing okay?). I could go on and on about villains but that is a post for another day.

I decided to tackle the problem of boring characters head on (after months of procrastinating of course). There was a lot of trial and error, but I finally came up with a process that rescued my characters from dull and lifeless to exciting and entertaining!

Step 1) Pinterest pictures.

One day I was banging my head against the desk after my main character pissed me off again (for being whiny and annoying and dumb). So I did the natural thing, I gave up and skipped over to Pinterest. While I was there I stumbled upon the best picture. It was an actor from a popular TV show and it was my villain! Sure the hair and eye color weren’t quite right but otherwise it was exactly what I had been imagining him to be like. I got so excited, I started searching for images for my other characters, and before I knew it, I had a picture or two for all of them!

I would highly recommend finding a handful of images to show who your characters are to you. It may be a celebrity or someone you know, or a total stranger from the interwebs. If the person doesn’t match exactly, find another one and make notes about what you like about each of them. This will help you later when you’re describing your characters.

Create a board for all of your characters or a board for each of them, whatever suits your fancy. If you’re like me and don’t like to share too much about your characters before you’re farther along, you can make the boards private.

Step 2) Take the Meyers-Briggs Test for your characters.

If you’ve never taken the test, you should do so for yourself immediately.  You can do that here. Then read about the personality type the test comes up with on that site as well as this one.

Based on my experience with myself, my friends and family, it’s very accurate (as long as you are very honest with your answers) and really intriguing to see them work out your personality with your strengths and weaknesses and what this means for different areas of your life. Obviously not all of it is going to be a 100% fit to you because you are a unique individual. But if they get it right more often than not, you’ve taken the test right.

Next, or first if you already know your personality type (ENTP for the win!), start taking the test for your characters. Have a notebook handy so you can write down each personality type for your character, that way you can go back and read more about it later. Try to visualize each character answering these questions. Answer them how your character would, even if you would NEVER answer like that yourself.

Once you have the personalities written down and a general idea of what each of them is like, head on to the next step.

Step 3) Fill out a Character Profile Worksheet

What is this you ask? Basically it’s a fact sheet of all of the boring details about your character. Height, hair color, face shape (this is where the Pinterest images come in handy, you can visualize them and find words to describe them more easily). Also family size, occupation, educational background.

Why is this step third? Because there are also some deeper questions you should also ask such as: How does this character deal with anger? Sadness? What does the character want out of life? If you answer these before you’ve taken the personality test you may struggle a bit. (I know I did.)

You could use this worksheet. Or this one. Or you could mix them together and add other things you think of to create something of your own, like I did.

Step 4) Interview Your Character.

This one may seem very similar to the previous step but I find these are specific questions that require a more in depth answer. It helps you develop your character’s voice, how they actually talk or explain things.

Ask your characters questions like you would a friend. What is your greatest fear? Who is your hero? I love this questionnaire from French author Marcel Proust. Back in the day questions like these were a party game, sort of like truth or dare. But more like truth or truth.

Step 5) Write a short story about each character.

You could combine a couple of the characters into one story, maybe to describe how they met, but I would challenge you to try to write one where each of them is the main focus of the story. It will help you to solidify who your character is as an individual. This story may not even make it into your novel, but it will help your characters really come off of the page and make readers fall in love with them. Or even hate them! (This is equally important if you ask me.)

My recommendation: Complete this process for each character that is going to play a crucial role in your story. Obviously I’m not telling you to make a character profile for the random blacksmith or fishmonger that your main character meets once and talks to for five minutes. I’m talking about the people that are around for a longer period of time.

In my humble opinion, in depth development of all characters is something a lot of authors fail to do. They put a lot of work into the main character and then half-ass everyone else. Develop everyone. The villain, the sidekick, the secondary characters that come in and out of the story, even if you’re going to kill them off. If they move your story forward in an important way, they need to be developed. Nothing worse than a flat character who dies and nobody remembers or cares. (Okay so there are things a lot worse, but this is a big peeve of mine.)

I hope this process will do for you what it did for me! Now I am excited about ALL of my characters. I can’t wait to watch each of them make an impact on my story!

What is your process for creating characters? Is your process similar to mine or different in some way? Please share in the comments!