Posted by: nancycurteman | July 29, 2011

How to Create Believable Characters

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The ability to create believable characters derives from your in-depth knowledge of your characters. Before you ever start to write, put your characters to the test by asking and answering questions about them. Start with physical details. Pretty basic. What do they look like? Describe them from head to foot—hair to toe. Include the clothing they wear.

Then ask questions about their personality traits. Are they shy, hot-tempered, sensual, arrogant, naïve, sophisticated? Are they impulsive or decisive? Brave or foolhardy? Do they have nervous habits or tics? Ask about their speech patterns. Do they have accents either foreign or regional? Do they stutter? Are they long-winded? Do they talk down to others? Is their speech educated or spotted with grammatical errors? Are they assertive or passive? Do they like to gobble down hot dogs or nibble at hummingbird eyebrow under glass? What are your characters’ strengths and weaknesses?

After answering questions about your characters’ personality traits, delve into their backgrounds. Where do they live? Where did they grow up? Are they small town people or big city sophisticates? Where did they go to school? Are they 8th grade dropouts or PhDs? You characters’ pasts will have a real impact on their presents.

Delve into your characters’ psyches. Ask questions about their fears, resentments, hopes, dreams, painful memories. What are their secret thoughts, desires, biases, wishes, quirks and habits? What are their inner conflicts? The interior lives of your characters are sometimes even more important than their exterior appearances.

Now make your characters work. Place them in a variety of situations and, based on all the questions you have asked and answered about them, decide how they would behave. When life gets tough, do they meet it head on or seek help or just give in or suffer? Describe how they relate to each other. Do they antagonize, irritate, bait? Do they present warm considerate, appreciative, demeanors towards other characters? Give your characters jobs, goals, hobbies that challenge them. How will they handle themselves?

If you have clear answers to all these questions, you may begin to write. Rest assured, you will write believable characters.

Important point: When you write your characters, don’t introduce them in a gigantic information dump. Sprinkle bits of information as the story moves along. Disseminate information through the use of description, dialogue, action, reaction, interior dialogue and comments from other characters.

More Writing Tips:

Developing Characters is No Mystery

How to Create Sympathetic Mystery Novel Characters

How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel

The Romantic  Heroine in a Mystery Novel

How to Write Character Arc in a Mystery Novel


  1. As always, very good advice Nancy. I wrote pages and pages on my boy, down to his ancestors history (because I needed that much depth) and the one thing I think is very important, is to know your character well enough to be able to catch when you have made them do something that is “out of character” for them, because sometimes, you can write something that doesn’t quite match how they should behave, but you only catch that type of thing, if you know your characters well enough.


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