Developing Believable Characters

When I was young my older brother used most of his spending money for books. Because those books were in our home, I wanted my mother to read them to me. She agreed, but on the condition that after she read a few pages, I would read a page. This no doubt accounts for my early reading and comprehension abilities. I think it also was the beginning of my love affair with strong characters.

One of those early books was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Tom was all of the things I admired: free-spirited, mischievous, clever, manipulative (in an endearing sort of way) but also respectful, courageous, and heroic. What more could I ask of a protagonist?

Twain not only created strong protagonists, but he also developed convincing antagonists with solid character traits. His antagonists always acted in ways that challenged the abilities of his protagonists.

Following are just a few of the ways authors can develop strong story characters:

Be a people watcher who focuses on things that might be missed during casual observations. Every person has a unique way of positioning in a space, interacting with others, and using the senses. Understanding the established behaviors of others is helpful to writers when they are developing characters.

Be sure characteristics are consistent. While physical appearance will change over time, character traits will not. If a protagonist is known to be kind, loving, and honest, it will not ring true for readers if that character attempts to acquire something in a dishonest way. Altering character traits mid-story causes discomfort for readers.

Be careful not make the protagonist perfect. Everyone has faults. If the protagonist is described as flawless, he or she will not seem authentic. Even fictional characters need to seem genuine.

Be certain characters are realistic. All characters need to be “real.” A fantasy character, such as Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia ( C. S. Lewis), is just as real to readers as is Emma Woodhouse in Emma (Jane Austen). When skillful authors imbue them with human traits and emotions, readers connect emotionally with fantasy characters in the same way they relate to human characters.

Anyone who doubts the “realness” of fantasy characters needs to watch a child cry with Wilbur, the pig in Charlotte’s Web (E. B. White), when his spider friend, Charlotte, dies.

Be aware of character conflicts and resolutions. Stories are presented in various ways, but all should have an effective, easy-to-follow, storyline that functions as the framework for characters’ actions.

Main plots, as well sub-plots, include protagonists, antagonists, conflicts, and attempts to find resolutions to those conflicts. In order to hold the interest of readers, protagonists need to be portrayed as effective problem solvers. A character attempting to solve a continuing problem in the same way each time the problem is encountered seems neither creative nor intelligent to readers.

No dull protagonists please.

Observe – Write – Make It Real

Happy Writing!

While reading back over this document, I noted all of the “Be” advice and was reminded of a book my mother read to me when I was a toddler. I think it was called the “Be-Attitudes.” I remember some of the page titles such as, “Be Kind,” and “Be Loving.” Much better advice than was given here!


  1. I remember some of those "Bees," too. Seems that here you are asking me to "Be Consistent." There is a stinging little "Be."

    1. Interesting that we both remember that book. And, yes, being consistent is a stinging one.