How To Create Believable Characters Your Readers Will Engage With

No story is complete without realistic, full-fledged characters. Read on to learn how to craft genuine protagonists your readers will connect with.

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If there’s one thing all great stories have in common, it’s strong characters. Not even the most epic plot of all time can save a narrative headed by weak protagonists. Without engaging characters, stories lack the heart and soul that keep readers invested. But crafting believable characters is no easy feat. To write a convincing protagonist, you must know who they are inside and out: their likes and dislikes, what makes them tick, and what their deepest secrets and desires are.

Today, we’re here to help you understand the fundamental building blocks of character so you can create protagonists with authenticity and depth. In this article, we’ll be discussing:

  • What makes a character believable?
  • The Basics of Character
  • Crafting Character Backstory
  • Creating Compelling Character Arcs
  • Character Writing Resources

What makes a character believable?

Relatability

To be relatable, all stories need to give readers something they can connect with. The primary narrative element readers identify with is character. No matter how outlandish your setting or plot might be, realistic characters ground the reader, allowing them to see parts of themself in your world. A character’s relatability comes from a couple of main components, namely emotion and theme.

Emotion is one of a writer’s greatest tools when building relatability. Joy, sadness, anger, frustration, fear — these are feelings every human being has experienced. By showing that your character also feels these things, you can create a point of connection with your readers, demonstrating that your protagonists are just as complex and realistic as they are.

All good characters also exemplify a theme. There’s a reason many stories share common messages — love, power, identity, courage, and perseverance, to name a few — and that’s because these themes are an integral part of life. Inescapably, we’ll all experience the process of discovering our identity, navigating human relationships, and contending with power dynamics. Thus, these concepts bring an element of relatability to any story.

To illustrate each of the aspects of character we’ll be discussing in this article, let’s take a recent example. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2022 novel, Carrie Soto Is Back, demonstrates the tenets of good character writing in many ways, including the relatability of the protagonist, Carrie Soto. Carrie is the most accomplished female tennis player in the world with 20 Grand Slam titles under her belt. Most people can’t relate to being a professional athlete, but what they can understand is Carrie’s struggle to connect with other people and her reluctance to accept defeat.

Whether your character is the lead of a contemporary rom-com or the protagonist of an epic space opera, some aspects of the human experience are universal. It’s those commonalities you have to tap into when crafting relatable characters.

Motivation

What does your character want? What are they trying to accomplish? What is their driving force throughout the course of the story? Even in mundane circumstances, human beings always have a motivation. Your motivation for going to work every day might be to save enough money to take a nice vacation. Your motivation for exercising might be to stay healthy. Your motivation for watching a movie might be to unwind after a stressful day.

No matter the situation, there is invariably an underlying motive present, even if it isn’t automatically obvious. The stronger your character’s motivations, the more believable they are, making it easier for readers to connect with and root for your protagonist.

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Your character’s motivation also reveals a lot about their personality. In Carrie Soto Is Back, for example, Carrie’s goal is to reclaim her Grand Slam record and prove she’s still the best female tennis player in the world. This tells the reader several things straight off the bat:

  • Carrie places a lot of value on titles and wins.
  • Carrie finds it difficult to accept being second best.
  • Carrie struggles to move on from her glory days and settle into retirement.
  • Carrie feels the need to prove something to the world and herself, indicating that she may have repressed insecurities about her worth.

The character’s motivation speaks to the core of their being and helps shape the arc of the plot, which is why this element has to be solid.

Realism

Exaggeration is par for the course in many kinds of fiction, but even so, your characters must have grounding qualities in order for readers to connect with them. Otherwise, they start to feel like hollow caricatures without any deeper substance.

When constructing your characters, think about the kind of world they’re inhabiting. If this is a literary fiction story, it’s going to demand a bit more realism than an epic fantasy or a supernatural thriller. The level of realism your story requires should carry through into all aspects of your writing, including exposition, dialogue, description, and characterization.

One critical aspect of realism is character flaws. Some authors tend to depict their heroes as faultless, all-powerful beings without any weaknesses or vulnerabilities. However, real people aren’t so perfect. They’re messy and flawed, and your characters should be too. Even if your character is a heartthrob Adonis, an immortal Goddess, or a seemingly invulnerable warrior, they must still possess some undesirable qualities. Otherwise, they’ll have nothing to fix throughout the novel, no journey of transformation and growth to endure. That’s not realistic, and it’s not what readers are looking for in their characters.

Take Carrie Soto for example. Though she may be a legendary athlete, Carrie is certainly not without her flaws. She can be callous and arrogant, and she’s willing to do anything to achieve her goals, even if it means hurting the people she loves. But that’s why her transformation is so effective. By the end of the novel, Carrie has learned to value human connection and humbly accept defeat. None of this growth would have been possible if she was not a flawed character to begin with.

The Basics of Character

Wants Versus Needs

At the beginning of the story, your character’s life is…not ideal, to say the least. Due to their misguided belief system, they’re plagued by unhappiness and hardship. They have a problem — or more likely, many problems — and they’re searching for a solution in the wrong places. The thing your character thinks will cure their ailments, otherwise known as their want, will actually keep them trapped in their dysfunctional life. The true solution is their need, but they’re not ready to see that yet. However, the closer your character gets to what they want, the more they start to realize that what they need might be something else entirely.

This tension between your character’s desire and the lesson they need to learn is the driving force of your story. Your character is torn between two paths: one representing their past and present, the other representing their future. Your job as the author is to make this strife feel authentic. Why is it so hard for this character to let go of their skewed worldview? What makes them so resistant to accepting the truth? And how does this internal conflict manifest in the external stakes of the story? What does the character stand to lose by choosing either path?

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When Carrie Soto decides to come out of retirement, it’s because she wants to prove to the world — and herself — that she is still the best at what she does. However, she needs to learn how to accept loss and find meaning in other parts of her life, namely in her relationships. Chasing a title will only keep Carrie entrenched in her self-afflicted misery; nearing 40 years old, Carrie is no longer in her prime, and even if she manages to win her title back now, she’ll only be setting herself up for more disappointment when it inevitably gets broken all over again.

But to Carrie, there’s no other option. She’s never had much luck in the romance department, and she doesn’t know how to make friends, meaning tennis is all she has. Later in the novel, when her former lover, Bowe, reenters the picture, Carrie begins to envision what a life of companionship could look like. Yet accepting Bowe back into her life means making herself vulnerable to heartbreak, something she isn’t sure she can survive a second time. Thus, Carrie’s lethal determination to win and her antithetical need to move on engage in a psychological game of tug-of-war, with Carrie’s happiness hanging in the balance.

The Lie Your Character Believes

Human beings are resistant to change, stubbornly clinging to their beliefs with a vice-like grip. Characters are the same. At the start of their story, your character will hold an erroneous belief about the world that drives them into conflict. This lie stokes your character’s want, but what the character doesn’t realize is that they want the wrong thing. This lie-fueled desire isn’t going to bring them the happiness and fulfillment they think it is. Instead, it will send them down a path of stagnation, and maybe even regression, as they struggle to justify their worldview in the face of opposition.

However, the new world they step into in pursuit of this goal will force them to reexamine the beliefs they once held and question what it is they actually need. The character recognizing their need is what helps to shatter the illusion of the lie and open them up to the truth.

In Carrie Soto Is Back, Carrie believes her worth as a human being is dependent on her value as a tennis player. Her desire to regain her title and prove she’s the best is derived from a fear that she is nothing without her Grand Slam record. This lie is fueled by many things: the pressure to succeed placed on her from a young age, her perfectionistic attitude, the lack of fulfillment she feels in other areas of her life, and so on. As Carrie begins to interrogate her strict self-standards and find contentment in her romantic relationship, she is able to see the cracks in her lie, realizing that the true path to joy lies in accepting love, failure, and herself. This enlightenment sets her on a journey of irrevocable change, from which she emerges a happier and more forgiving person.

Proactive Versus Reactive Characters

Another important aspect of character is how big of a role they play in moving the plot along. In other words, are they a proactive or reactive character? Proactive characters take initiative, and their choices are the catalyst for the plot. Reactive characters let the plot happen to them, and the story progresses despite their inaction.

Carrie Soto is a proactive character. She makes choices that move the plot forward, such as her decision to come out of retirement. There would be no story without Carrie’s relentless pursuit of her goal. On the other hand, if Carrie had been a reactive character, she never would have elected to come out of retirement, and the story would have ended before it began.

Readers tend to prefer proactive characters, as their goals and decisions make the story more interesting. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t write a reactive character. However, if you do choose that route, you need to explain why the character is like this and make them indispensable to the story in some other way. Maybe your character doesn’t instigate plot events but they use their wit to solve problems and get themself out of trouble. Regardless of the specifics, they need to possess some invaluable quality that the story couldn’t exist without.

Of course, your character doesn’t have to fall into one category or the other. It’s more of a spectrum, with some characters leaning closer to one side of the scale and others landing somewhere in the middle. Your protagonist’s place on the spectrum may also change throughout the story as their character arc takes shape. Whichever direction you choose, just make sure it’s clear to the reader why the story had to be about this character. If a random side character could easily take their place or even make for a more interesting protagonist, that’s a good sign that you have some more work to do.

Crafting Character Backstory

The Character’s Ghost

In almost every story, the protagonist has something they’re running from. In some cases, this may be literal (perhaps your character is a con man trying to evade the law or a runaway bride fleeing an arranged marriage), but in other instances, your character’s ghost can be more figurative. In a romance novel, for example, your character’s ghost might be a past relationship gone wrong, leaving them with lingering trust issues that will impact how they interact with their new love interest.

This “ghost” is directly related to the character’s wants and needs. A character whose ghost is a failed romantic relationship might want to transform themself into the most desirable partner possible to avoid being cheated on or abandoned again. However, what they need is to stop settling for poor treatment and find someone who appreciates them for who they truly are.

In Carrie Soto Is Back, Carrie’s ghost is her insurmountable self-imposed standards for success. From a young age, her father trained her rigorously to be a tennis star, so she began to associate her value as a person with her performance on the court. Therefore, when Carrie’s Grand Slam title is broken, she feels lost and worthless. This ignites her desire to win her title back when what she really needs is to learn to separate her sense of self-worth from her merit as a tennis player.

Showing Versus Telling

Especially in the first few chapters of their novel, many authors fall into the trap of telling instead of showing. Often, this comes in the form of info-dumping, which is when writers drop a ton of detail on the reader at once. Info-dumping frequently occurs when writers try to communicate essential information about their character’s backstory. However, what they end up doing is lecturing about the character’s past, and this slams the breaks in the story’s action to the detriment of the pacing. Thus, a more subtle method of information delivery is required: showing.

Information about your character should be unveiled gradually as the story unfolds, and this is most easily accomplished by having your protagonist’s thoughts, behavior, and personal interactions exemplify their qualities, disposition, and trauma. Spreading out the reveal of major details not only helps keep the pacing consistent but also adds to the story’s suspense, creating an aura of mystique around your protagonist. Unknowns are what keep the reader invested, so creating little mysteries around your character by strategically withholding certain pieces of information will add even more intrigue to your story.

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Telling is an equally vital tool for writers, but determining when to show and when to tell can be tricky. To help you decide, think about how the emotional impact of this information might differ in scene versus summary. That your character used to eat cereal for breakfast every morning probably isn’t going to elicit a strong reaction from readers either way, but that their parents forgot about their eighth birthday would more effectively be conveyed through a scene so that readers can grasp the full emotional weight of this moment.

Taylor Jenkins Reid balances showing and telling well in Carrie Soto Is Back. Instead of telling the reader that Carrie struggles to connect with other people, for instance, Reid shows this through Carrie’s troubled romance with fellow tennis player Bowe Huntley. Witnessing the fear, longing, and resentment Carrie feels in her relationship with Bowe helps the reader understand her better and makes it all the more satisfying when Carrie gets her happily ever after.

While it may be tempting to spell things out for your readers, being told how a character feels is much less stimulating than experiencing that emotion right along with them. Remember, your readers are smart. They’ll pick up on the characterization crumbs you leave for them, so don’t be afraid to let readers deduce things on their own.

Creating Compelling Character Arcs

The Different Kinds of Character Arcs

Three distinct kinds of character arcs describe the trajectory of a character’s change throughout the story:

  • The positive character arc is when your character changes for the better. This is the kind of arc you’ll see most often. In a positive-change arc, your character begins the story flawed, and they end the story less flawed, having learned a lesson about the world and themself. Through challenging their faulty belief system, they are able to conquer their inner demons, as well as their outer enemies.
  • The neutral character arc, also known as the flat arc, is when your character doesn’t go through any noticeable change throughout the story. You will most often see neutral arcs in long-running series where the protagonist is well-established and complete. Characters like this already have the insight and skill to defeat their antagonists at the beginning of the story. Hence, rather than going through the process of growth themselves, they change the world around them instead, guiding other characters through transformative journeys of self-evolution.
  • The negative character arc is when your character changes for the worse. Essentially, this is the reverse of the positive-change arc. Instead of growing past their faults, your character descends into an even poorer condition than they were in at the start of the narrative. If you’re writing a villain origin story, this is probably the arc you should choose.

There are plenty of routes you can take within these three categories, but the general structure of each arc remains the same.

Selecting the kind of character arc your protagonist will follow is critical. The shape of this arc impacts everything from plot to tone to theme, so you’ll want to decide which direction you’re going to go as early in the ideation process as possible. Once you identify your story’s moral and your character’s goal, choosing an appropriate character arc should be intuitive.

The Marriage of Plot Progression and Character Growth

What sets great characters apart is how their internal and external demons interact. Inner conflicts like the discord between the character’s wants and needs should fuel outer conflicts, creating a perfect synthesis between the plot and the character. When these elements are blended well, the protagonist’s interior dispute and exterior struggles intensify each other until the character reaches a point of no return — either they reject their old worldview and defeat their enemy or all the work they’ve done up until now will have been for nothing.

It’s at this climactic moment that the theme of the story is exemplified by the character learning their lesson, and this newfound clarity gives them the final push they need to defeat the antagonist. If you execute this moment successfully, the plot progression and character growth will harmonize to create an unforgettable scene.

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In Carrie Soto Is Back, the culmination of Carrie’s character growth coincides with the climax of the plot. She’s made it to the final round of the US Open, and if she wins, she’ll reclaim her treasured Grand Slam title. But to do so, she’ll have to defeat her rival — the woman who stole her record in the first place — Nicki Chan. Carrie believes that if she wins this match and regains her glory, she’ll be able to let go of her obsession with being the best. That’s what she’s counting on as the sets wear on and on.

It’s a tight game, but ultimately, Carrie loses by a hair’s breadth. The moment she realizes she’s been defeated, Carrie expects to feel shame. But she doesn’t. She sees her partner and friends smiling at her from the stands, and she feels relieved that she can finally close the chapter on this part of her life and step into a new one.

This is a moment of catharsis, both for the character, who has fought an arduous mental and physical battle to reach this point, and for the reader, who has accompanied the character on their journey of self-development.

Character Writing Resources

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody

Based on Blake Snyder’s bestselling book on screenwriting, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is an essential plotting guide for fiction writers. Here, author Jessica Brody applies Snyder’s screenwriting technique to the art of novel writing, breaking down the 15 core beats of every successful story. Though this book primarily focuses on plot and genre, Brody also describes what each story beat means for the character’s transformation, illuminating the crucial link between character development and plot progression. If you struggle to find the harmony between plot and character, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is a must-read resource.

P.S. If you’re a YA writer, check out Brody’s latest craft book, Save the Cat! Writes a Young Adult Novel: The Ultimate Guide to Writing a YA Bestseller.

Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development by K.M. Weiland

Creating Character Arcs is the handbook for character writing every novelist needs. In this comprehensive guide, award-winning author K.M. Weiland answers all of your burning questions about creating compelling characters, including how to choose the right kind of arc for your protagonist, how to seamlessly blend character and plot, how to develop character arcs for novel series, and so much more! Weiland builds on the prominent three-act structuring method to explore the psychology underlying authentic human change. For a more in-depth look at the relationship between character development, plot, and story structure, don’t hesitate to pick up this book.

P.S. Creating Character Arcs has an accompanying workbook for anyone who wants to put Weiland’s insights to use.

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The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

Authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi help writers master character expression in their bestselling resource book, The Emotion Thesaurus. When it comes to conveying emotion, the golden rule is, “show, don’t tell.” However, finding a unique and powerful way to portray our characters’ feelings is no easy task. That’s why Ackerman and Puglisi have broken down emotional responses into a few core components, including thoughts, body language cues, dialogue, and visceral responses. They also address how to make your characters’ emotions consistent and convincing to draw your readers in and keep them hooked. If you’re feeling stuck on how to construct emotionally resonant moments in your story, this book is for you.

P.S. The Emotion Thesaurus is the first entry in a series called Writers Helping Writers, which gives authors the tools to level up their descriptive abilities. Check out the subsequent books for more on how to write character flaws, character attributes, psychological trauma, and other vital story elements.

Build Better Characters: The Psychology of Backstory & How to Use It in Your Writing to Hook Readers by Eileen Cook

Whether you’re writing a swoon-worthy romance or an action-packed thriller, there’s one thing that’s going to keep your readers turning the pages: captivating characters. In Build Better Characters, counselor and author Eileen Cook delivers necessary character construction tips based on real psychological techniques. In Cook’s view, writers must dissect their characters’ backstories to understand why they make certain choices. By doing so, authors can create a more complete and authentic personality for their characters and better grasp the stages of change their characters must go through during the story. For those desiring actionable steps to take toward writing stronger characters, this book is a must-read.

P.S. Build Better Characters is part of a series of resource books called Creative Academy Guides for Writers, which helps authors master every part of the publishing process, from story development to book promotion. Check out the other guides to learn about creating story conflict, collaborating with other authors, building a successful writing career, and more.

The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV by David Corbett

In The Art of Character, critically acclaimed thriller writer David Corbett simplifies the procedure of character creation by anatomizing the crucial components of characterization. Pulling from his career as both an author and a private investigator, Corbett provides an indispensable blueprint for writing striking scenes and enthralling dialogue. Aspiring and accomplished writers alike have much to learn from Corbett, who discusses everything from motive to the power of secrets to thematic unity. This book is the ultimate toolkit for creating vivid, memorable characters.

P.S. For even more advice on how to build empathetic and engrossing characters, check out Corbett’s other craft book, The Compass of Character: Creating Complex Motivation for Compelling Characters in Fiction, Film, and TV.

Writing compelling, believable characters is a challenge, but no story can be successful without them. Characters are the beating heart of any narrative, and they’re what your reader will be most drawn to if you’re doing your job right. When crafting your protagonists, just remember, the most beloved characters are the ones who reflect some piece of the human experience back at the reader. So look inward, trust your gut, and get writing!


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