Characters are important. Characters are hard. How does one create a character that seems real and says and does believable things?

Obviously, you first need a character outline. Many, if not most, writers do this in their head — and that’s fine, if you can remember it all. Still, it’s best to write it all down — which I will address in a separate post.

Is your protagonist a people person? Do they play well with others, or cause conflict? Do they say the first thing that pops into their head, or are they more nuanced? Are their actions well-thought out, or do they operate on impulse?

Characters become believable usually through interactions with other characters, which leaves you in an awkward position of having to develop multiple character outlines at once. Maybe not so difficult, but still tricky.

We gain insight into a character not only by their actions, but their reactions.

“Remember, the potluck is tonight.”

He paused. “Do you want me to pick up wine on the way home?”


“Remember, the potluck is tonight.”

He paused. “Shit.”

Obviously, the second reaction is more interesting, and the reason(s) behind it are important as they give insight into the character’s motivations, or lack thereof:

“Remember, the potluck is tonight.”

He paused. “Shit.”

He forgot. It was Friday, it had been a hard week, and he wanted nothing more than to stay at home and veg. Putting on airs and pretending to be interested in other people’s babbling was just too much damn work. Especially Garson’s babbling.

This character is selfish, but his selfishness makes sense and is something the reader can relate to. Yet there are other facets of selfishness that can bubble up to help the reader understand the character(s) in a slightly different light:

“Remember, the potluck is tonight.”

He paused. “Do you want me to pick up wine on the way home?”

“That would be great.”

He smiled. It was Friday, it had been a hard week, and he wanted nothing more than to stay at home and veg. Putting on airs and pretending to be interested in other people’s babbling was just too much damn work. Especially Garson’s babbling. But if he could get through it, maybe there would be something more than a goodnight kiss when they made it home from the party.

Same selfishness, but a different reaction with a different motivation.

In either case, it also helps imply the status of the couple’s relationship — although one is slightly more insightful than the other.

The motivations behind the character’s actions and reactions can play a significant role in making the character seem real. Which leads to …

Plausibility. The character’s actions and reactions need to make sense. Even if the character’s reaction is distasteful or horrific, it’s important for the reader to understand the motivation and feel it is plausible.

Often, antagonists/villains say and do things that are just plain evil, and the reasons behind their actions are usually not very deep. Even when a motivation is provided, it can come across as shallow and one-dimensional.

Jeremiah stood over the body and smiled. One down, three to go.

And that’s it. I’ve read stuff that does this. It’s meant to be dramatic and suspenseful, but it asks more questions than it answers — and while the writer may want to say “It’ll all be explained later”, it’s still a cheat. You’ve given the reader an event without context with the implied promise it will be answered later.

There are others who go too far the other way.

Jeremiah stood over the body and smiled. One down, three to go.

Ever since he was a boy …

Boring. Here a character has supposedly just committed a gruesome act, and the writer is stopping to provide an explanation. While that background may not be shallow nor one-dimensional — and may even be interesting — the writer has brought the story to a halt to illuminate the reader.

While this example may seem obvious, I’ve seen it happen all the time. Don’t do it. Do not explain the motivation(s), but give the reader clues they can apply.

Jeremiah stood over the body and smiled. One down, three to go.

This guy won’t be hurting any more children. He slid the gun into his pocket and stepped back towards the door, glancing at his watch. Still time to meet Lisa.

Here, we’ve done several things: While he may have done something horrible, we’ve given the character a motivation that the reader can accept without needing to go into detail. They can fill in the blanks. It allows the reader to use their imagination, which invests them in the story. And there’s someone in the character’s life who he seems to care about — it implies he has a girlfriend. Again, the reader fills in the blanks, investing them deeper. They may even have a mental picture of what Lisa might look like.

At the appropriate time, you can help fill in the blanks. Maybe Jeremiah had been abused by the “victim”. Maybe Jeremiah was the father of a child who had been abused. Maybe Jeremiah is a vigilante, gunning down people who he suspects have abused children. Any of these can be explained in short snippets that allows the reader to understand without a big dollop of background that kills the story dead. Because once you slip into background information, it becomes the story.

Motivation is the key to every character’s action and reaction. They don’t do stuff just to do stuff. And they certainly can never be used to only be a tool to advance the story or explain away their actions.

Let’s assume Jeremiah has no problem with confrontation. He uses it to get what he wants. He enjoys keeping other characters off-center so he seems unpredictable and aggressive. This then leads us to ask how other characters react to that.

He would not say “Want to go to a movie?” He would say “Let’s go to a movie.” It’s not a subtle difference.

What does the other character say?

The other character’s motivation(s) now play into Jeremiah’s. He is either accepted, rejected, or put on hold. The consequences can become even more interesting.

Jeremiah: “Let’s go to a movie.”

Lisa can respond in different ways:

A. “Sure.” Jeremiah feels accepted and may even believe his evening could end in sex.

B. “What do you want to see?” His acceptance by her is contingent on his answer. Does he suggest something she might enjoy, possibly leading to sex? Or does he pick what he would like, exposing his selfishness?

C. “There’s nothing I want to see.” Jeremiah can take this as an affront to his acceptance, or he can shift gears, suggesting another activity, to see if she’s being honest or if she just really wants to go home without him.

D. “I’m enjoying this. Want to order coffee?” Again, his acceptance by her is based on his reply. He could take her response as an indication that she likes spending time with him, or she is trying to control him.

E. “It’s late. I really should be getting home.” Rejected, but the level of rejection can go in different directions. How would he take it if she fiddles with the straw in her water glass before replying? What would his reaction be? What if, instead, she smiles before saying “It’s late”? Is she implying he should go home with her? Or does he assume she wants to get away from him?

Perhaps, at this point, you’re thinking that I’m over-complicating such a simple scene. But my point is, every single thing matters. If you include what seems like an innocuous scene, it should have consequences or implications for each of the characters. If not, there’s no point of the scene being there. And it all boils down to motivation.

Each character wants something. Each character doesn’t want something. Each something is important for the reader to understand the character’s motivations. You need to plot this out ahead of time so the character’s actions and reactions dovetail with their motivations.

Maybe you’re a writer blessed with this perception automatically. You know and understand that with every action there is an equally important reaction. And that two different characters may have not just different actions and reactions, but different motivations that need to either mesh or diverge with/from one another.

In reality, most writers fall into one of two categories: Plot-driven, or character-driven.

Neither, on their face, is bad. But you’ll need to analyze which you lean towards in order to work at balancing the two. If you are a plot-driven storyteller, you need to work on opening up your characters. If you’re character-driven, you’ll need to work more on having the characters push the story forward. Either way, it all boils down to motivations.

Plots don’t happen on their own. Characters need to drive them. But I’ve read many manuscripts in which the character is just a tool to move the plot forward. He does this, he does that, this happens, that happens. Motivations are assumed or ignored.

On the other hand, characters without plot lead to a boring tale. I recently read a story by an extremely talented writer. The words were jewels, the phrasing was magical, and I could see everything in stunning detail. I felt I knew and liked these characters. But in the first three chapters, almost nothing happened. And what did happen was very rote: The male character woke up, went into the kitchen, found his wife working on the laptop at the table. They discussed breakfast and the value of the nutritional components of various foods. He kissed her briefly, and she slapped his butt as he walked away. Literally, that was it. For three chapters. The rest was describing the scene (which, for the writer, gave insight into the characters’ personalities), his feelings for his wife, several asides about previous events in their relationship, and impressions of what might happen later that day.

Again, the writer did this brilliantly — the prose was sparkling, original and enchanted. I was, in many respects, jealous of this writer’s way with words. But it was boring as hell.

If you focus too much on character’s background and motivations, you literally just have a bunch of blah blah blah. The characters must act on their motivations and their background be a seasoning to give flavor to what they do and why they do it.

The background is not the reason they do what they do. The background is a hint at the motivations for what they do. Does that sound like the same thing? It’s not.

Many children are bullied. Some of those children turn into bullies themselves. Others do not. Why does one turn one way, and the other goes a different route? Motivation. Background alone does not explain motivation, although it does sometimes offer clues.

We all want acceptance. A bullied child might get it by trying to extort power over another. A different bullied child might look to gain acceptance by using humor, or becoming valuable in some way to other kids. Still another bullied child might shrink away from achieving acceptance in order to avoid being hurt. Background is a clue, while the motivations all vary.

In killing an alleged child molester, what might Jeremiah’s motivations be? Does he have an overbearing requirement for justice? Revenge? Or has the evil that was perpetrated upon him become his evil?

You have some very important questions to answer about each and every character you introduce into a story. If you don’t have a solid, hard reason for the character to be there, then they shouldn’t be there.

On the other hand, some characters may only have walk-on roles, and both their presence and motivations might be limited … but I would argue that it’s vitally important that you know them — even if (especially if) you don’t expose them to the reader.

In fact, there are going to be dozens of things that you, as the writer, know about the character that the reader may never know. Dozens of interesting things. Things you may feel obligated to share. Like a ménage a trois the character participated in while in college. Or as a victim of an armed robbery. Or the time they inadvertently ran a red light and caused an accident. Unless these tidbits have a direct bearing on the story, do not use them. Sure, feel free to keep a notebook where you write them out and maybe even expand upon them, but resist the temptation to offer the background as insight to the character.

Use the motivation of the character to explain the background, not the other way around.

Eric Dalen

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