Two Stages of Creating A Believable Character

creating a believable character

Creating a believable character for your story begins with an initial idea, but the process of developing her into a complex, real personality will require thought and research.

Stage One: General context

In the first stage of general research when creating a believable character for a book or story, it’s always a good idea to begin with what you already know. Your own personal experiences and observations can be a launching pad for exploring the character’s circumstances and motivations.

The general context of the character involves collecting all the facts about the where, when, why, and how this person exists in your story and how he or she interacts and influences the world you’re creating.

Perhaps your hometown will serve as your setting in regard to specific details that serve to enhance your fictional world. You can describe the way the air smells, how the sun shines on the main drag, and how the locals interact.

Garrison Keillor, the host and creator of the radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion (which inspired the 2006 motion picture of the same name) is no stranger to using his hometown roots. A native of Anoka, Minnesota, Keillor broadcasts A Prairie Home Companion from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. One of the more popular storytelling segments from the show is “News from Lake Wobegon,” a weekly report from the fictitious town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, described as “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Throughout the segment, Keillor pokes fun at central Minnesota’s large Scandinavian- and German-American communities that he grew up with and knows so well. Using details from your own personal experiences and surroundings will help you create more believable and dynamic characters too. Observing the people you interact with every day, their physicality, mode of dress, emotions, and humor will allow you to give vibrant voices to your main and supporting characters.

If your protagonist has three best friends, why not use your old high school friends as seeds of inspiration? Understanding the people you surround your character with will help you develop believable character actions and reactions within your story, and may help you have them take detours and react differently than you otherwise may have expected.

Stage Two: The deeper dive

After you explore the first stage of researching and establishing the general context of your character – the “what you already know” stage – it’s time to expand and research the more comprehensive second stage, which includes cultural conditions, story location, professional occupation, and historical period.

Cultural conditions
Culture encompasses essentials like ethnic background, educational experience, social conditions, and religious upbringing. 

Growing up in a Greek family, like Toula Portokalos did in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where laughs are boisterous and hugs are never in short supply, is much different than what it might have been like in a more traditional Middle Eastern family where lips are sealed and you keep your hands to yourself. Characters’ actions and reactions will be greatly affected by the environment in which they were raised. 

If your main character is faced with a catastrophic event, like the death of a loved one, knowing their religion can be key. Does he turn to God? Does it shake his faith? Education level can also affect how a character acts or reacts to any number of situations. How would someone with a college degree versus someone who dropped out of high school react to a major event in your story?

Story location
Location is significant, whether you’re setting your story in a US city or on another planet, because there are rules for every world. It’s important to be specific. If your character lives in New York, as Isaac Mortimer Davis does in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, you have to know there’s a big difference between Times Square, Broadway, Chinatown, and Greenwich Village. If your character is from Los Angeles, does she shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills so she can be seen by the paparazzi, or does she lay low with the hipsters at coffee shops and micro-breweries in Silverlake or Echo Park? 

When you know the details of the world, you’re on the right track to creating a more distinctive character. 

Professional occupation
Most everyone over thirty has worked some kind of job in their life and has a specific work ethic. Take, for example, Monty and Dean in the movie Waiting… If your character has worked in the restaurant business – or in any service industry – she will most likely have unique attitudes toward food and hospitality and will probably treat her waiter or waitress with reverence when going out for a meal.

Trust fund babies, on the other hand, will probably have a much different attitude towards getting their hands dirty and being a slave to the grind. Arthur‘s Arthur Bach, the heir to a vast fortune, is a happy drunk with absolutely no ambition, and certainly no desire to get to work.

Even though the most important part of developing a character is choosing his or her objective, many times a goal can be a specific career or future dream job. In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner is a homeless salesman who takes custody of his son while working as an unpaid intern for the chance to become a professional stock broker.

Historical period
If your character lives in London during the 1960s, he may be partying with the Rolling Stones and experimenting with psychedelic drugs. In 1942, he may be in boot camp preparing to join the Allies for the War in the Pacific. The time period your story is set in affects everything from hygiene to speech to manners within society. Knowing the year, the month, even a specific historical day will help inform and specify your character’s behavior. 

Placing your 17-year-old protagonist in 1951 Virginia proves immensely different than in 1971, after the desegregation of the school system, as is the case in Remember the Titans, where black head coach Herman Boone is hired to lead the football team at newly desegregated T.C. Williams High School. Race relations are just one of many social indicators of any given time in our country, and being true to the social and historical contexts in your story will test your characters’ and your story’s believability.

In sum, the knowledge you have of your character’s culture, location, occupation, and time period is the foundation on which your character navigates his or her story. Truthful dialogue cannot be created without deciding exactly how your character communicates. But before dialogue can be written, you must use all the research you have gathered to form an understanding of how your character thinks.

Your character’s past and present will influence his or her values, concerns, morals and emotions – all of which are crucial tools you must employ to take your character on a truthful, motivated journey towards his or her main objective.

Written by Michael Schilf for The Script Lab.




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