How to Make Your Characters Real People

So often when we write, we have a default list of characters in our mind. The head cheerleader. The captain of the football team. The nerd. All stereotypes. We know them so well: what they look like, what they say and how they act, so it feels natural to exploit them.

1) Characters are what give a story personality

Just like your own group of friends, each person has their own quirks and ways of carrying themselves. This is what makes you say “Oh my gosh, we are SO weird!” No one has a preset, immediately identifiable personality. They all interact with you differently, which is what makes you love getting to know them so much. You became friends with them for a reason.

2) Think of a character as someone you’re just getting to know.

What are some questions you would ask them? What’s their favorite color? Where did they grow up? What do they do for a living? Gotham Writers has a great list of questions you can go through to further discover your character. Even if you have already developed characters, it would be a great exercise to learn more about them. It’ll also help you think of them as a person, as opposed to a pawn in your brilliant plot. For main characters this process is crucial, but its good for secondary characters as well. It’ll help you steer clear of using stereotypical personalities. Even if they only show up for a scene or two, it’ll give your story some depth. You don’t have to weave some intricate back story for the mailman, but if he does have a small part to play, thinking of him as a person will help.

3) How do they interact with others?

Are they a better talker or a better listener? Do they tend to agree with people or strike up debates? Maybe your character has an anger issue, or they’re the ever-smiling one. Maybe they’re passive aggressive, or just plain passive, letting people walk all over them. Maybe they’re quick to judge, or maybe their motto is “I love (or hate) everyone equally.” Imagine your character on a bad day; they’re at the store. Someone has just cut them off in line. What do they say? What do they think? Do they think before they act? Do they think but never act? Do they apologize to this person or kick them in the leg? Are they more or less tolerant of certain types of people? How do they view society? These are just a few questions you can ask to get a grasp on your character in relation to other people.

4) Relationships

Relationships are what build unity and conflict in any story. They move the plot along. So it is crucial for them to be well developed and thought out. So lets work with an example. Two characters are friends. This tells us very little. So what kind of friendship is it? Do they push each other around? Are they inseparable? Like siblings? Friends with benefits? When developing any relationship, ask yourself what that means to each character. Do they like being in that relationship at all, or would they be inconsolable if the other left? Also, keep in mind each character’s personality. A calm, passive character wouldn’t be very likely to have an aggressive relationship. This example is obvious, but sometimes it takes awhile to figure out what kind of relationships your characters would have. That’s why this process is so important.

5) Change

Change is something we all deal with on a regular basis. We see others deal with it, which more often than not tells us something about them as a person. Some get completely rubbed the wrong way when change occurs in their lives. It could be that they are simply used to patterns and routines. It could be that they like to be in control, and knowing the playing field is one form of control. Possibly both. Others thrive on change, excited to be doing new things and going new places. Maybe they are in perpetual need of new ideas and inspirations to keep them thinking creatively. Or maybe they just feel claustrophobic, trapped in the same routine. These are all very normal, human reactions. Change is bound to occur in any compelling plot line, so these are all important things to keep in mind when deciding how your characters will react.

6) Their ability to change

One of the main things about being a human is that you are able to change. You’re not the way you were when you were a child. You’re probably not even the same as you were a year ago, or a few months. So your characters shouldn’t be any different. You should ask yourself a few questions. Does your character change easily, or hardly ever? How have they changed up to this point? What would prompt them to change now? What kind of change would it be, and would it be for the better or worse? Would they be glad they changed, or would they long to be the way they were? How would the other characters react? This is very important to address when moving a plot along. Would the events in your story be enough to change a certain character drastically? Or would they change gradually? Would their change prompt other characters to question their ways as well?

It’s important to remember that sometimes the way a character changes isn’t simply good to bad or visa versa. They could very well be shifting between two evils. If they improve, it might not be by much. Or if they get worse, its possible that they’re the only one who views themself as evil. Or the opposite: they could think that what they’re doing is right, but everyone knows their actions are sure to be destructive.

Just keep in mind that neither in real life nor a complex storyline are situations black or white. Just like people are never true stereotypes to the core, neither are characters.


Originally published at on January 2, 2015.