How to write believable characters


01 October 2021
Learn to create authentic fictional characters with advice from Anna Davis, founder and director of Curtis Brown Creative – the writing school affiliated to the major literary agency.

To a great extent, story arises from your character wanting something and trying to get it against the odds. This means that motivation is incredibly important when planning both character and plot.

Everything your protagonist says and does should be for a credible reason that is consistent with who your protagonist really is. Even when your protagonist behaves in ways that are ‘out of character’, the reader needs to understand why, and needs to believe your character would act or react in that particular way.

Here are three important questions to consider:

  1. What does my character want?

You must know your character’s biggest, deepest, and most fundamental desire. It could be really simple – or it might take you a long time to discover what it is – but when you do, it will help enormously to shape your character, and it will be the primary driver of your story.

  1. What is stopping them from getting what they want?

To build story there should be a force of antagonism that stands in the way of what your character wants.

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This can be a person/enemy. For example, a wicked witch or traitorous friend.

This could be a circumstance. Something that just happens to your character and is outside their control, such as a bereavement, an accident or extreme weather.

Antagonism can also be the character’s own internal conflict. Perhaps they have opposing goals or desires that pose an inner struggle.

  1. What does my character want in every scene?

In every scene, your character should want something and be trying to achieve it – anything and everything from wanting to find somewhere to eat breakfast to wanting to understand the meaning of life.

In most narratives, we see a whole set of goals and ‘wants’ arising from the protagonist’s primary ‘want’. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s big goal is to go home – but to get it she’ll need to achieve lots of smaller goals – she’ll have to follow the yellow brick road to find the wizard, enlist the help of three friends by promising to help them to achieve their objectives, and also kill the witch … These are the building blocks of story.

Learn the ins and outs of characterisation from Anna Davis on Curtis Brown Creative’s brand-new four-week online course: Character Development – The Deep Dive. The course runs for the first time this autumn. Enrol here by 19 October