What do all great writers have in common? They know how to get their reader emotionally involved in their stories. They do this by creating realistic, believable characters that their readers can identify with. However, this is a feat that is much easier said than done. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the Mary Sue and create a totally unrealistic character. How do you avoid this trap and make your characters believable? Think about what makes people, well, people!
One of the things that makes us who we are is our past. Positive experiences reinforce behaviour and negative experiences leave scars, all of which will shape the way we think and behave later in life. If your character has been deceived in the past, for example, it is expected that they will have some sort of trust issues and may not open up to people very often. A character who dislikes people for no apparent reason, however, is not nearly as believable, and this is why it’s important to create a past for your character that you will eventually, in some way or another, share with your reader.
People are also consistent, for the most part. There are the obvious exceptions, but generally speaking, people aren’t going to be so unstable that they seem to be a whole new person in a short amount of time. What does this mean for you? It means that although you may be having a bad day and want to send your character to kick some butt, if your character isn’t the butt-kicking type then you should wait until you’re in a better frame of mind to write about this character. In short, don’t write your character ‘out of character’.
While your characters should remain consistent, don’t think that means that they have to be static. People are dynamic and your characters should be too. Just as we change throughout our life, so should your characters. Just make sure that the change is gradual and/or reasonable. Whether their new friends give them a new way to look at things or a near-death experience shocks them into a new perspective, there are many ways to bring about a change in your character — and it doesn’t always have to be a change for the better. Experiment and see what you can come up with.
All right, so people are consistent, dynamic, and we all have a past, but isn’t something missing? People have depth. We’re not just flat pieces of cardboard placed around the world to make it look busy, and we’re not all what we seem to be. We all have depth. We have multiple layers, and as people get closer to us, we allow them to peel away layers to get closer to who we really are. Maybe as people get closer to you, they discover that there is a grey area on what they thought was a black-and-white topic with you, or they find out some deep dark secret you’ve been hiding for years, whatever. The most believable characters share this same depth that real people have, and when the author does a good job, it all falls into place.
Keep in mind, there will always be exceptions to the rule. Just because someone says this or that makes or breaks a believable character, it doesn’t mean you have to give up your idea. The believability of a character largely depends on how well they fit in with the other characters in their world — not how well they fit into ours. Some things however, are more or less universal, and should be kept in mind when writing any character except in special circumstances. A talented writer can make just about anything work, as long as they’re willing to make the effort.