How to Create Characters That Are Believable and Memorable

by Glen C. Strathy

If you create characters from the outset who will fulfill the dramatic functions of your plot (see Archetypal Characters ), you will have saved yourself a considerable amount of rewriting later on. Assuming you read the previous article and have now created characters (or at least ideas for characters) who will take on these functions, your next step is to turn them into people your readers will fall in love with.

Generally speaking, when you create characters, you have four main criteria to meet. You want to:

1. Create characters who fulfill the required dramatic functions.

2. Create characters who are memorable.

3. Create characters who are believable.

4. Create characters who are three-dimensional.

Of course, not every character has to meet all these criteria. You will develop your major characters more fully than minor ones. However, it is useful to consider all four aspects when you create characters. Having briefly discussed the first criterion already, let's look at the second one now...

How to Create Memorable Characters

It may seem obvious, but when you create characters it is important to make each character distinct and different. In fact, you must do this to keep your novel interesting. Besides, in a novel that has a lot of characters, readers can have a hard time keeping track of who's who unless there are clear distinctions. (In fact, sometimes writers have the same problem when working on a novel.) So whenever you introduce a new character, you must provide a clear impression of that character's uniqueness. That way, the reader will know this is a new character, and will recognize him when he appears in later scenes.

Do your job well, and you will create characters so memorable that they stay in the readers' minds for the rest of their lives. That's not an unrealistic goal. Who could ever forget, for example, Sherlock Holmes, Ebenezer Scrooge, or Winnie-the-Pooh, after reading the books about them?

An important technique for creating memorable characters is to give them “tags.” Tags are things which identify a character and set him or her apart from other characters. Generally, these are sensory impressions. For example, if you have read the Harry Potter novels (as quite a few have), you may have noticed that they contain a lot of characters. To help readers keep the characters straight, the author, J. K. Rowling, goes to a lot of trouble to create characters with very distinct physical tags. Here are a few examples...

Harry Potter: green eyes, lightening-shaped scar, glasses, perpetually messy hair

Hermione Granger: buck teeth, bushy hair

Ron Weasley: red hair, freckles, long nose, gangly

Rubeus Hagrid: huge, shaggy hair and beard, beetle-black eyes

Albus Dumbledore: long silver hair and beard, half-moon glasses, long fingers

Minerva McGonagall: square spectacles, green clothes, hair in bun, severe look

Severus Snape: long greasy black hair, hooked nose, sallow skin

Draco Malfoy: pale, blonde, pointed face

Vernon Dursley: beefy, no neck, big mustache

Nearly Headless Nick: ghost (therefore pale and translucent), head nearly but not quite severed from shoulders

I could go on.

Tags can include physical traits, clothing preferences, hairstyles, habitual mannerisms, facial expressions, speech habits, noises the character makes, or even scents - anything, in fact, that a person interacting with the character would notice about him. The combination of a character's tags should set him or her apart from all other characters in the novel. The only exception would be if you want to create characters whose identities become confused for a specific reason (e.g. you're writing a mystery and you want two suspects to be mistaken for each other).

When you first introduce a character, you include some of his or her tags in a description of his appearance or actions. Your description can be very brief. All you need to do is help your readers create an image of that character in their minds. Throughout the novel, mention a character's tags whenever the character reappears and you feel the reader needs to be reminded who he or she is.

You don't need too many tags per character – one or two can be enough for minor characters. Major characters will need more because they appear more frequently and for longer stretches. (The more time readers spend with a character, the more details they expect to learn about him or her.) So you may not introduce some tags until later in the novel.

As the story progresses, the characters will become more fixed in the reader's mind, and you may find you don't need to insert the tags as often.

Of course, the most common character tag is not a sense impression at all, yet it is the one tag you are most likely to use every time a character appears. It is the character's name.

How to Create Character Names

Here are a few tips on how to create character names ...

1. Try to create character names that sound different from each other. Have them start with different letters of the alphabet, and avoid giving characters the same name. (Of course, there are exceptions, such as when you want a father and son to have the same name if it tells the reader something about the father's personality, or customs in that community. But then you may need to use other tags distinguish them from each other.)

2. Keep character names consistent. Don't don't let your narrator call the same character “Bob,” “Robert,” “Bobby,” “Rob,” and “Robby” at different times, because your reader could think you're referring to five different people. Even if his mother calls him “Robert” and his girlfriend calls him “Bob,” your narrator must use the same name consistently.

3. You may want to create character names that convey something about each character, such as his or her ethnic background. The internet is a great tool to help you do this. For instance, you can search for surnames that are Irish or German or any other nationality fits your character. When looking for first names, many “baby names” websites will list given names by national or ethnic origin.

4. You can follow in the footsteps of Charles Dickens and other writers and create character names that convey something about your characters' personalities. Again, “baby names” websites will tell you what various first names mean, so you can choose ones that fit your characters. Dickens used to create character names that were quite ironic, for example: Mr. Bumble, Master Bates, M'Choakumchild (an unpleasant teacher), Mr. Sowerberry, Mr. Skimpole (who is miserly), and Mr. Headstone (who attempts murder). Other times, he used onomatopoeia, to create character names whose sound conveyed an impression of the person. For example a name like “Scrooge” certainly sounds appropriate for the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” that he is.

5. Alternatively, you may prefer to choose names randomly, perhaps by flipping through a telephone book. If you google “random names” you will find there are many sites that offer random name generators – including some that generate original names for fantasy characters. It's probably not good to take names directly from these sites but they are a great source of ideas. You can easily alter the results to create character names that suit your novel (for instance, you should probably change fantasy names a little so that all your characters who belong to the same culture have names that sound like they come from that culture).

At this point, you may wish to create character names and a short description for the characters you have in mind for your novel – including a few distinctive physical/sensory tags. Create character files on your computer - one per character - or use a separate page in a notebook for each character (leaving plenty of room to add notes later).

One more tip...

To help your imagination when you create characters, try hunting for photographs of people who look like the characters you want for your novel. You can find these in magazines or even in the catalogs of modeling agency websites. (Just remember that people in real life are not quite as airbrushed and skinny as those in advertisements.) You can then paste these photos into your character files.

How to Create Believable Characters

Often the most memorable characters are those with highly unusual tags. However, in your effort to create characters that are memorable, you may find yourself creating characters that seem a little far-fetched. For instance, suppose you are writing a novel that takes place in 19th century London, and you have chosen to create a character who is a female cab driver with three hands who reads Plato, wears a grass skirt, and clucks like a chicken every few minutes. Obviously, your next challenge is how to make that character seem believable.

Of course, you will have to decide how realistic a novel you are writing. There's nothing wrong with writing fantasy novels, for which you create characters who are very strange and outlandish. And even if you are going for realism, there's no need to create characters who seem ordinary. Human beings are a pretty diverse species. There has ever been such a thing as a “normal” or “average” person. In every city, in every era, you find people of extremely diverse cultures, philosophies, personalities, and physical shapes – and with personal histories and backgrounds unique to them.

As for our three-handed cab driver, you may need to give the reader some explanation of why she is who she is and how she ended up in her present career – but with a little imagination, you should be able to invent a background for her that makes sense, even in an otherwise realistic setting.

The key to creating believable characters is not to make them ordinary, but to make them consistent. Readers want to believe in your story. They like to imagine it could be true, even if it seems unusual. And one sign of a true story is that it doesn't contradict itself. So, even if you create characters who are unlike any human being who ever existed, the reader will accept them, if they behave in a manner consistent with the traits you have given them and the background you have invented.

In other words, the reader will accept whatever reality you devise, so long as you play fair and don't change it arbitrarily. Your cab driver cannot, without explanation, suddenly be illiterate, or have two hands, or lose her job for wearing the grass skirt she has worn every day for five years (as if no one would have noticed it before).

To take a better example, let's suppose you create a character who is a feeble, old man who uses a walker. If, at the climax of your novel, this man gets into a fight with a gang of hoodlums and beats them to a pulp, the reader will feel you have broken the rules – you have contradicted what you previously stated about the character, and lessened the reality of the story.

But what if you really want the old man to surprise every one with his fighting skills?

The way to handle it is to make sure your story has a consistent reality, even if you don't reveal it right away. For instance, you can drop little hints early in the novel that the old man, despite appearances, has exceptional physical abilities. Perhaps he catches a baseball just before it hits a window, or leaps into a tree to rescue a cat (when no one is looking). These events may seem strange at the time, but the reader will suspend his disbelief in the hope that all will be explained in the end. After your old man takes on the hoodlums, you can reveal that he was once a champion martial artist who has chosen to hide his talents from the world. With that explanation, the reader will see that you were being consistent all along.

Some characters are just part of the setting.

Ironically, sometimes you create characters whose only function in a novel is be part of the setting. Whether you are writing a contemporary, historical, or fantasy novel, you will likely need background characters to make the world of the story seem real.

For instance, if your main character goes to a restaurant, you may have a waiter or maitre d' make a brief appearance. If your main character goes to a store, a salesclerk may pop up. These minor characters may turn out to be unimportant in terms of your plot, but you create characters like them because it makes sense for them to be there. Their presence helps reinforce the reality of the world your novel takes place in.

If you are setting your novel in the 19th century, in a small fishing town in Newfoundland, the reader will be very surprised not to see at least one male character who fishes for a living. In fact, there will probably be more than one. It would also make sense for you to create characters such as the fishermen's wives, children, and other relatives living in the same town. A little research will reveal other characters who the reader expect to find in such a town at that time – tradesman, merchants, professionals, a priest, etc. You might learn something about the ethnic background of Newfoundlanders at the time. Your town could have been settled primarily by Irish, French, or American immigrants – or a combination. You can discover what clothes people wore in that setting, what their religious beliefs tended to be, what medical services were like (to know how likely is was for people to have amputations, eyeglasses, TB or polio.).

On the other hand, if you want your novel to take place on the planet Xenofrix in the Andromeda galaxy, then you need to think about creating characters that might logically appear in that environment. You will have to design a world, a culture, a community, and possibly a species of intelligent life for your characters to belong to that makes sense.

Of course, there may be times when you simply mention that your main character “took a cab to the airport.” Maybe you want your plot to move quickly at that point in the novel, and nothing meaningful is going to happen in the cab anyway. On the other hand, if something important is going to happen during that cab ride – if your main character will have a revelation or make an important decision, etc. -- you will probably want to describe the cab ride in more detail. In that case, creating a cab driver character may help to enrich your description of the scene.

Such very minor characters, sometimes called supernumeraries, walk-ons, spear-carriers, or red shirts (if you're a Star Trek fan), may not have a dramatic function. They may not be memorable characters, and they certainly won't be three-dimensional. But they do need to be believable. That is, you should create characters whose appearance, speech, and mannerisms are consistent with that setting. If not, they will call too much attention to themselves and make the setting less believable. For instance, if our three-handed cab driver is a mere walk-on, who serves no purpose in the story, her presence would make no sense to the reader and undermine the believability of the novel.

It is worthwhile giving tags even to your background characters, because specific details always makes them seem more real than a generalized description.

Even better, try to create characters in the background who are consistent with your Story Goal. For instance, if you look at the film, Casablanca, in which the Story Goal is to escape the city of Casablanca and get to the free world, you will see that most of the minor characters are people who are either trying to escape or helping others escape.

In the film, Star Wars, you'll notice that the background characters on the “good” side are extremely diverse – including numerous alien species, robots, and everything in between. The bad guys, on the other hand, are just as extremely homogeneous. The storm troopers are identical clones, and the Imperial fleet officers are all Caucasian men with similar accents and uniforms. In other words, the good guys accept and embrace differences, while the bad guys reject them. The background characters help illustrate that defeating the Empire will give people the freedom to be individuals.

In the novel, Bridget Jones, Bridget is a single woman wishing she could find true love. So it is fitting that her world is peopled by characters who are similarly wrestling with the challenges of either staying a singleton or taking a chance on romance.

Whatever your Story Goal is, your story will be more unified if you create characters, even minor ones, who are involved in that goal.

At this point, I recommend you take a little time to create characters who would make sense in your chosen setting, and a brief description of each. Again, use a separate page or file for each. Some of these you may never use. Others may become supernumeraries. Still others may evolve into more important characters as your novel writing progresses.

How to Create Characters Who Are 3-Dimensional

So far, we have looked at how to create characters that have a purpose in the plot, that are distinct, and that are consistent. But to create characters with the depth that will make them seem real to your reader, we must proceed to a deeper level.

In addition to motivations or functions, Dramatica theory provides three other aspects to a character's personality worth considering. When you create characters, especially major characters, it is worth taking the time to develop these other aspects. In your character files, try writing a paragraph that addresses each of the following...

1. Purposes. What things does your character want in life? These can be long-term goals or present needs, and varying degrees of importance.

2. Methods. When faced with a problem, how does your character try to solve it? How does he act? What does he do?

3. Evaluations. How does your character judge things, people, situations, herself? How does she decide whether she is making progress towards her goals, or whether things are getting worse?

As you create answers to these questions for a particular character, it is helpful to also ask yourself why the character is the way he/she is. Why does she want what she wants? Why does he approach a problem that way? What makes him/her see the world with that particular bias? What events occurred in your characters lives to make them the way they are? You don't need to create a complete history for a character (although a little background may prove useful at some point in your writing), but having some explanations can inform your writing and make the characters more real to you – and consequently to the readers.

The final step is to create characters who will fulfill the two most important roles in your novel. (It may surprise you to learn that these are not necessarily your hero and villain.)


Do you have a question about creating characters or any other aspects of novel writing? If so, visit our Questions About Novel Writing page to get the answers you need.


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