Making Your Characters Real

Today I’m going to share a quick tip on creating believable characters.

Believable characters are ones that seem like real people because they have virtues and vices.  We see their ups and their downs, and we sympathize, even if they are the bad guy, because they are relatable.

But how do you make sure your characters are relatable?  It’s easy.  Make them balanced.  They have to have good and bad sides, even if the bad outweighs the good.  Just like no person is all good, no characters are all good, and a  truly evil character has his good points too, or maybe he did in the past.  This balance between good and bad creates conflict within readers about whether or not they like your characters, adding more tension to your story.  Just like nobody likes all the traits of the people they know, your readers shouldn’t like everything about your characters.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to make sure that all your characters are developed enough to have strong virtues and flaws.  One way I make sure they do is by an exercise I call “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”  It’s a really simple way to get you to think critically about your characters’ traits.

What I do is make a spreadsheet.  I like to do this by hand on notebook paper, because I hate taking the time to reformat the boxes in an Excel file to fit my text, but that works just as well if it’s your preference.

In the first column, list the names of each of your characters.  Make sure to leave plenty of room between their names, because you may need multiple lines for each of them later.  Make three more columns and label them “good”, “bad”, and “ugly.”  Leave extra space in the “ugly” column.

The good column is self-explanatory.  Write down several of the traits that you feel make your character good.  It’s okay to put a few, but you don’t want to put more than three or four.  The point is to list the ones that really make your character special and have the most impact on the story.  For example, I had a character name Frederick in an early draft of my current novel.  For good, I put that he was family-oriented and ambitious.  I knew he was also organized, but that didn’t have a lot to do with his personality, so I left it off.

Repeat this step for the bad column, focusing on negative traits.  For Frederick, I put that he is strict, angry, and impulsive.

Make sure you don’t just put random traits down.  Really think about negative traits that will balance the good in your protagonist, and do the opposite for your villain.

The ugly column is where it really comes together.  It is for whatever negative trait the character has that causes him or her problems and how it plays out in the story.  I usually make it a whole sentence and base it off the words I used in the previous column.  While the good and the bad columns may give you quirks or even smaller actions to work into your story, the ugly column can help you figure out how your characters are changing the story based on their personalities.

In my example with Frederick, I thought about the fact that he was angry and impulsive and tried to figure out how those traits could play out in an action.  His ugly column says, “He is so strict that he rages and gives into angry and murderous impulses.”  All I did was take those traits from the previous box and form them into some sort of sentence that could imply action, and that gave me a new piece of information: Frederick has murderous impulses.  This was something I hadn’t known about my character before, and that’s what is great about this exercise.  It helps you learn things about your characters that you don’t know yet.

I do it for all the characters in my novel, except for the ones that are only walk-on roles.  This helps me figure out not only what they are like, but how those traits come together to create the driving force behind your character’s action.  Even if you don’t use all their “uglies” in the story, I think it’s important to know what is motivating your characters, so that they stay consistent and are engaging throughout the entire novel.

How are you going to make your characters more realistic?  Leave a comment.



12 thoughts on “Making Your Characters Real

  1. I’ve been doing spreadsheets on my characters for years. I used to think that asking “dumb” questions about what makes them tick did absolutely nothing for me..but sometimes the answers really surprised me! Between this and free-writing, I think I learn the most about my characters- the good, the bad, and the ugly. Good article!


  2. I actually write character bios before I begin writing and I put in character ‘flaws’ during the personality profile. Temper, phobias, recklessness, obsessed with chocolate, etc. I’m very character focused, so I make sure to have a good sense of the character before I even begin writing. Many times a character will demonstrate a strength or flaw during the actual writing, which is always fun.


    • I often start by making my first character and working on plot after that until I have an idea of all the characters I will have. After that, I do something like what you mentioned with all of them. It’s very time consuming, but, like you said, very rewarding when those traits show in the story!


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