How to Create Realistic Fictional Characters

Idea

Along with setting development, creating believable fictional characters is one of the early key steps to producing a solid fiction novel.  In this post, I want to give you an overview of the techniques I use for my series.

While there are a lot of different ways of writing a novel available, I've found that spending a lot of time on the front-end of the process (before you even start writing the book) has saved me a lot of time in the long run.  This isn't to say you won't have new ideas you can add along the way, but for the Hannaria Series I had the majority of the characters developed before I started the first book.

Getting Organized

In the case of writing a novel series, you often deal with a large cast of characters.  Even with having a good memory, it's difficult to create fine details on the fly and keep everything consistent.  An example I use is that you wouldn't want a character having green eyes in one book and blue in another, but usually continuity mistakes are more subtle.  Still, observant readers will notice them.  For a character to seem solid to readers, as an author you need access to more information than you'll likely ever use.  This will still help you and can even be used as "extras" material when you later go to market your finished book.

I've played with a lot of demos of writing software, but when it came down to doing this project I just used Microsoft Word.  With each of my characters, I created a profile sheet based off a template with categories including physical description, demographics, biographical history, relationships to other characters, and personality traits.  You can print these out if needed or have them within easy access on your computer's desktop.  (Once you're finished with this on at least your main characters, it's good to do at least one online backup by sending yourself an e-mail with the profiles attached and a second backup on a flash drive just in case something goes wrong on your main computer.)

Using Profile Information in Your Books

Once you have all of this information compiled for all your characters, you sometimes have to resist the urge to dump it on your readers all at one time.  Think about how you get to know real people--through their actions, their words, how others behave toward them, etc.  From a reader's perspective, the discovery portion about a character is part of the fun--and too much information at once can be overwhelming at the least and at worst kick them out of your story entirely.

What helped me the most in this approach is that my characters became clearer to me--I have a feel on how they would react in certain situations and how they relate with other characters.  When the situation is appropriate, I reveal background information a little at a time until an overall picture of the character forms.  It's a very similar process with setting.

Internal Conflicts and Story Plotting

Heroic characters need flaws to balance them out and keep them interesting--the same goes with villains having at least a small redeeming quality.  In relationship to your plot, look at how internal struggles can increase tension and even add to external conflicts.  (With sci-fi, I tend to deal with both internal and external conflicts at the same time, but I've read a lot of great novels where the primary conflict was internal.)

The Relationship Between Your Research Material and Books

If your intention is to write a series, the information flow shouldn't only be from the profiles to the books.  As you grow as a writer, new ideas on how you can make your characters better will come--and in most cases you can update your profiles without doing harm to previous information.  In situations where you're doing multiple drafts of a single novel, updating profiles during the rough draft stage will later help you during the editing process.

Resource Ideas for Deeper Research

  • Old editions of psychology textbooks can teach you a lot about personality traits.  I'm fortunate to live near a used bookstore with "free bins" (where books that people don't want and the store won't buy end up), but if you go several editions back from what colleges are using the price for a general psychology book drops to around $7 including shipping and tax.  I like David G. Myers from where I had his books in college.  If you're not a big fan of textbooks though, check out Florence Littauer--I like her overall layout of personalities and how they relate to each other.
  • If your characters have specialized careers or interests you know nothing about, do your homework--online research, books, and direct interviews if possible.  For example, even though my primary genre is sci-fi I have several characters in law enforcement and medical fields.  Since it's geared for writers, I really like the Howdunit series, but in general try to find material as close to the source as possible.