Posted in Blog Post Museum

Character Development for Fiction Writing: Realistic & Human Characters

musemThis post is part of a blog museum, archiving old writing from a previous blog.


A Reason for Everything

Real life people think, feel and act the way they do for a reason. Events in our past, environmental factors, social factors, upbringing… all of these cause lasting emotions and color our view of the world. The same goes for characters.

Even if you are writing a fantasy story and your character can do astounding and wonderful things normal people can not do, when you take all that away, your character is still a person. Characters who are personified non-human creatures are just that – personified, making what is non-human human enough for readers to identify with.

If you want a character to be convincing to your reader, your character’s design must have some basis in reality. And realism starts with understanding that nothing simply “just is”… but there is a reason for everything.

Ben_DecemberIs your character just a big grouch? That’s fine but… why? It’s not good enough to say: “Well… he’s just angsty. That’s the way he is.” If you can’t support the character’s foundational personality with real and believable reasons, then your character loses a sense of depth. And you, as an Author, miss out on the opportunity to really get to understand what’s going on in that character’s head.

This doesn’t mean you have to explain everything about your character to your readers – there are certainly some things you will want to keep secret. And you don’t have to know everything there is to know about your character – that usually comes with time. As long as readers get the feeling that you have overall knowledge and authority of the character in your writing, your characters will come through as convincing and real.

You Can’t Be Everything to Everyone

We’ve all probably said “I’m only human” at some time on our life — generally when we’ve just made some sort of mistake. Another facet of creating a realistic character that your readers can connect to is knowing what makes a character human in the eyes of others.

Faults, mistakes, bad judgment calls… we’ve all had our down days… weeks… months? There’s not a single person that can claim to be perfect among us. And it’s generally when others stumble, struggle, even fall… but pick themselves back up again, that we come to care, sympathize, cheer on and laud someone else.

The same can be said of your characters. To truly become real, no matter good or evil – they must have faults, fears and moments of weakness. A character that never makes a mistake, never loses a fight, always knows the right thing to say, is loved by everyone, is always sure of what direction to go in, knows them self perfectly inside and out… is not just plastic-Barbie-fake… but downright boring and annoying. When someone is always a winner, what are the stakes in their struggle in life? Is there even a real struggle to be had?

Readers are not perfect, therefore, cannot connect to a character that shows no human flaws. In fact, readers may reject a flawless character as unrealistic and unbelievable. The character you strove to show as perfect in the readers’ eyes suddenly becomes the one that is least liked.

A rule of thumb is to always balance the good with the bad. For every how many strengths a character may have, they need to have something they aren’t so good at. You will find that as your characters struggle to overcome their weaknesses, that is when your readers will respond and connect to your characters the most.

What do you do to make your characters more realistic and human? What traits do you give them — do you have a certain development method to share? Let me hear it!



I'm a technical writer by day, gaming gal by night. I have a wide array of gaming interests, though I most often blog about MMOs, RPGs, and Nintendo fanstuffs. Like what you just read? Check out my Webcomic and Fantasy Fiction projects!

14 thoughts on “Character Development for Fiction Writing: Realistic & Human Characters

  1. One of my favorite sayings: “Every blessing comes with a curse.” So, while your character is good at something, that something must also have a negative effect. What you have to make sure is that it’s worth it to your character. Or, that could be a plot point, how they struggle between loving their gift and hating it, between looking at the glass half empty–when things go wrong and the negativity seems to take over–and looking at it half full–when it’s obvious to them how special they and their gift are.

    There are lots of good examples in history. Einstein was excellent in his mind, but couldn’t count very well–almost an oxymoron for a scientist.

    Robin Hood was very good–but he was forced to be a thief, and sometimes probably made mistakes in that thievery, stealing from the wrong people and such.

    Creative people are often the odd-one-out, often being different from everyone else and having lots of quirks.


  2. Okay, story time!

    Wren probably knows it by now, as will many readers who come to this blog from the Sygnus forums, but I often jokingly refer as a character of mine as a Mary Sue. While some people are often quick to tell me she is, in fact, not a Mary Sue, very few know that she is actually a very-borderline Sue, meaning that if I’m not careful, she will go to the dark side.

    One of the main reason I call her a Mary Sue is mainly due to one thing; she has a lot of magic potential in her, more than everyone has ever seen. That, in itself, is something that is quite common among the Sues that pollute the fantasy genre.

    It was quite hard for me to find a flaw (or a set of flaws) that would be massive enough to balance that gift of hers. I pondered this long and hard. Then it hit me; what do the all-powerful Sues lack that my character could have? As Stormcloud so aptly said it before me “every blessing comes with a curse.”

    It was so natural, so obvious that I found myself really silly for not thinking about it before; this borderline-Sue is not a mystical creature, or a human/elf/dragon/goddess hybrid, she’s a regular, mortal, 100% human being. Her body is not built for using such a massive amount of power without consequences. So whenever she uses her powers beyond the level of what a normal, if magically-talented, human would be able to achieve, she not only gets in severe pain due to the strain all that power puts on her mortal body, she also risks killing herself in the process. Should she survive the ordeal, it not only leaves her in a weakened state, the massive amount of energy consumed had an additional consequence: it shortens her lifespan whenever she uses that much energy.

    And let’s not even touch the whole mental aspect. Or even what could happen to those around her if she momentarily lost control of her powers.

    So while I could have a character that would be able to obliterate whole kingdoms while filing her nails, I instead chose to have one could do it if she wanted to, but who has to pause and choose whether or not the sacrifices she would make to use her powers are necessary in that situation, and if the consequences would be worth it.


  3. It’s all about checks and balances, then. At least, that’s what I’m gathering from your stories. Very interesting and I agree!

    I do the best I can to balance out the abilities with the faults. My faults tend to be of the personality nature — my figments are usually their own worst enemies. Chances are, they could accomplish a lot more if they could just get over the stumbling blocks they drop in their own path.

    But that’s probably a reflection of me… as it’s quite true of most people in some form or fashion.

    Ben is actually (believe it or not), one character I have had to scale back a few times. Part of it was due to being quite young when I designed him. “Mary Sue” wasn’t a concept that was known to me at all… I mean, there was no net in my household when I was writing my first stories! So, in retrospect, I’ve had to go back and tweak a lot of things for him, though he still remains a bit too powerful, IMHO. His more passive personality and fears tend to soften this a little. I still don’t always know what to do about Sygnus, though.

    Thanks for sharing! These are fun discussions! 😀


  4. Well.. I guess you have Amberyl, who is short of a Sue herself. She is very magically gifted – technically she’s able to use magic that rivals Tellah’s abilities – but she’s so handicapped, that portion of her power is almost useless.

    She can shapeshift, use magic, and use a dragon form, as well as communicate well with animals (not like Ben does, but gets a general feeling for what’s up with them) – namely lizards – and has the potential to tap into various Mist Dragon capabilities.

    The fact is, though, that she doesn’t. She doesn’t like to use magic and she finds it almost impossible to control her half-form and gets Berserked in the process. She seems the sweet, honest, endearing airhead, but deep down it’s a facade. Inside she’s just a scared, lonely child who never knew what it was like to have a loving family, and who grew up sheltered and protected, though not spoiled.

    She can only shapeshift as long as her energy holds out, and loses her clothes in the process. She can’t mimic things like phoenixes or unicorns or regular dragons and has to stick with small to medium sized animals.

    Overall, her flaws actually overpower the abilities I originally gave her.

    The characer I have who is truly a Sue in a way is Amara – almost limitless power. She can withstand using a lot of it due to being only half human, but she has to use limiting devices disguised as jewelry – otherwise the constant flow of power into her body will eventually overcome her and rip her apart. She’s like a conduit of energy that she can manipulate, but much like Gaby’s character, will pay the price pretty dearly if she abuses it.

    her biggest weaknesses are her quick temper and occasionally, overconfidence. She’s also reckless and puts herself in danger a lot.


  5. I think Ben balances out because he’s so afraid to use his powers . . . He comes across as slightly clueless about how powerful he is, so the thought that he might be able to conquer the world WITHOUT Zeromus’ help hasn’t exactly crossed his mind (At least, that’s how it looks, but then maybe Ben is just not the type of person to even think about that possibility much.) So, I think you’re safe with the story until you DO figure out what to do when he DOES learn exactly how talented he is XD


  6. Stormcloud: I think you have a pretty good grasp on how Ben works. *laughs* He does have a pretty “explosive” temper! That’s when he forgets himself enough to really take charge of the situation.

    I think Ben has a good idea of how talented he is, to be honest. And that’s a big reason he acts the way he does — he doesn’t want to turn other people away from him should they find out. He’s very clever about covering up the true extent of his understanding, even to the readers!


  7. For me, designing good characters isn’t a matter of what they can do or can’t do. It’s what they are. I’ve been writing them by instinct for the most part, but I’m currently working on actually putting words to my design process, and it makes me feel like the centipede who was asked how she danced. (If you want to see what I’ve got, I’m trying to centralize the pieces here.

    Mostly, I think the key is to have a character who is, well–organic. One with both flaws and merits, with a writer who’s willing to treat the flaws as such. One who has a past, and whose past definitely affects her decisions. One who grows, and changes. The changing is, I think, the most important part; the best characters I’ve created have been products of things that happened in the story itself. I personally favor characters who deal with their limitations by trying to find workarounds for them; after all, what’s the fun of someone who just sits around going “Poor me” until getting either bailed out or kicked in the pants by the narrative?

    (Nice picture, too. Moody Blues fan, are we?)

    Ravyn’s last blog post..Engaging Secondary Characters: Planning for Impact


  8. Ravyn: Thanks for the wonderful comment. And yes, Moody Blues fan of over a decade here. 🙂 I’ll take that to mean you are, too?

    Organic is a word I have never heard attributed to character development. But it’s a really GOOD word — your explanation makes sense to me. I do a similar thing with all of my long term characters… their development often stems from the choices they make (good or bad) in handling the situations they face.

    You’ve got some really interesting posts on your blog. I’m gonna be checking them out!


  9. Thanks!

    And yes, I am. My father introduced me to their music a while after I start playing the flute, and…. well, they stuck.

    As to the comment–I figured the characterization could do with some grounding. A lot of the responses here seem to be focused as much on power set as personality and traits, which is in my opinion something of a mistake. I’ve seen near-immortal characters who by powers alone would constitute Sues manage to be engaging and worthy of respect; I’ve seen normal boring human characters whom I’d call Sues because the world bends in their favor, and their flaws are glossed over and show no real consequences. I’m rather fond of Limyaael’s definition of a Canon Sue: A character whose perception of reality is perfectly in line with the author’s and who is, as a result, just about always right.

    Ravyn’s last blog post..Engaging Secondary Characters: Socratic Characterization


  10. Ah! Well, it’s great to meet another Moody fan, then. It’s not everyday that someone knows where Moody song quotes come from, so I was taken a little aback! *laugh*

    That’s a very interesting definition of Canon Sue. It would go to say that it’s not so much the power level of a character that makes a Sue as it is the perfection level of a character, then. Funny how all the “Sue Quizzes” out there always focus on abilities and power level to grade your characters by. Not that I put a ton of stock in those, mind you. No matter what you do, your character will have a few things that those quizzes label as Sue-isms.

    Most of my characters lean towards the powerful side for one reason or another. Though with newest characters, I’ve tried hard to give them skill sets that are more reasonable. However, I’ve never made a character that is completely and totally 100% right all the time. In fact, there are plenty of times my characters do things or have attitudes I can verbally denounce as “wrong”.

    Just as much as I have in common with my characters, they also have their own personalities that sometimes don’t always mesh with what I would choose to do in a situation. But then, again, part of being more human and realistic is not always responding the “right” or “best” way to situations… that’s something that we all do at sometime!


  11. Well… That’s an interesting question.

    I guess my characters took on a note of realism when I started broadening my experiences. They gained things, too, as I saw the world in new and interesting ways.

    Sometimes, they just out and demand to be changed. All of the Four Hearts demanded reasons for the way they were, and I gave them to them, though I had to change the plot to do it.

    Sometimes, though, I ignore them, but then I go back and change it later, because I’m overindulgent and I feel bad.

    My figments are spoiled silly.


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