Character Development for Fiction Writing: Realistic & Human Characters

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.

A Reason for Everything

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.

Is 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!