9 tips for designing a believable character

So you've decided you want to get started in web comics or another form of storytelling. What makes a good story great? The characters. But how do you create believable characters? Where do you start? The art of character design is complex. In this article, we'll take a look at how to get started, and offer some advice on where to go from there.

01. Figure out a backstory

This is probably the single most important part of creating believable characters. It doesn't matter if you're developing a good guy, bad guy or even an imaginary monster. If you want your characters to jump off the page – or the screen – you need to know their backstory (even if the audience doesn't).

Strong character development requires more than just deciding hair colour, age, height and weight. It's deeper than that. Ask yourself: Where were they born? How was their childhood? What happened to their parents? Do they have any fears? If so, what are they? The more you ask; the more you'll discover; the more depth your character will have.

02. Get inspiration from real-life experiences

They say writers should write what they know. That's true... but not entirely. When developing your characters, drawing on your own personal experience is a great place to start. But don't stop there. Don't make a carbon transfer onto one of your characters based on your Aunt Ethel. Change it up a bit. 

Give her some new quirks, a new skill, an ex-husband, anything really. Just don't create another Aunt Ethel for your fictional character – not unless she's absolutely perfect in real life. Bottom line... you're a creative person: create!

03. Do your research

If your character is not like you, then do your research. I cannot stress this point enough. For example, let's say you're working on a story that features a character that is a former police officer. Unless you, too, used to be a police officer, you're going to need to do a little research in order to develop a character that's believable and realistic.

04. Do a little world building

character standing on map of the world

All characters are influenced by the world around them

Another way to create believable characters, is to create a believable world. In fact, sometimes the 'world' is its own character, but that's an entirely different topic altogether. The reason creating a world helps is because our fictional characters, like us, are very much influenced by the world around them. 

Use that to your advantage. Is your character living in a city? The country? How does this impact how they live? Sometimes, I'll work out location before I even attempt to place characters inside it.

05. Allow your character to evolve

Let's face it, static characters are not only boring, but they're unrealistic too. Sure, there may be a few people in your 'real life' that don't seem to change, but for the most part, people are constantly growing and evolving.

When characters change in a story, it allows the story to move forward. Generally speaking, your protagonist needs to face some kind of challenge. In order to overcome this challenge, they will need grow and evolve. Let them.

06. Give your character a voice

Give your character a voice. Talk with them. Let them tell you what they want. I know this sounds a bit strange, and I certainly don't recommend you do this in public, but it can help to have a conversation with your characters – out loud.

If having an actual conversation with your fictional character is a bit too much for you, then have one on paper. Write it out. Sometimes I'll even interview my characters.

07. Be the voice no one else can hear

Nothing drives a character more than that little voice inside their head. Not only do you need to be the voices around your characters, but you also need to be the voice no one can hear.

During the conversations you have with your character, pause every now and again and think about not only how your character will respond, but why they will respond that way. What are they hearing inside their own head? Did their parents always encourage their dreams, or tear them up? Do they hear their ex-partner tell them they're too stupid, too weak, too ugly? Be that voice.

08. Put a face to a name

I'm not sure if other writers do this, but sometimes I'll do a Google image search to 'find my character' so to speak. A lot of times, I'll start with an image and build my character around that image.

09. Don't try to be perfect

This seems like a no-brainer, but so many people (I won't lie, myself included) get stuck on this 'being perfect' thing. Perfect does not exist.

Your characters don't need to be perfect, nor does your story. Especially if it's your first draft. Just get the words out of your head and onto the paper (or into the computer). And most importantly, have fun. You'd be amazed at how much better your writing is when you're having fun.

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Tammy Coron

Tammy is an independent creative professional, author of Apple Game Frameworks and Technologies, and the maker behind the AdventureGameKit – a custom SpriteKit framework for building point and click adventure games. As an innovative problem solver and industry leader, Tammy enjoys working on projects from content creation – including books, tutorials, videos, and podcasts – to the design and development of cross-platform applications and games. For Creative Bloq, she has written about an array of subjects, including animation, web design and character design.