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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Widdowson

Creating Believable Characters

Updated: Apr 28

fantasy giant book woman in field with balloon and pink tree

In my blog titled, “Fictional Realism”, I touched on how I try to make my fictional characters believable. I also alluded to the fact that there’s a lot more to it than simply deciding what they might look like, how they may dress, and their basic tenets and personalities. We are all unique individuals with particular characteristics. We each have our own ways of responding to the events and people in our lives and our own peculiar (or maybe mundane) interests and aversions, and therefore, so should the characters in our books.

When I was working in the corporate world, we were taught about the MBTI (Myer’s-Briggs Type Indicator) personality test. It’s a method of having a person answer a plethora of questions about themselves, analyzing those answers, and then, based on the responses, categorizing them into a specific personality-type group. The category may be ISTJ (Introversion, Sensing, Thinking and Judging; or ENFP (Extroversion, Intuition, Feeling and Judgment and Perceiving), for example. There are sixteen categories in all. In case you want to delve deeper, Julia Simkus created a chart of all the MBTI personality types, which you can read in her article in SimplyPsychology

In business, knowing where your personality fits within these categories helps you better understand how you learn (visual, auditory, or reading, for example). It can also help you understand why you behave the way you do. Do you tend to be impatient? Do you respond well to criticism? Do you work well with others or do you prefer to work alone? There are a lot of questions to answer that helps the MBTI tool determine how to categorize your specific personality. MBTI is not the only personality-classification method, but it is one of the most popular ones. As you answer all those questions, and review the information provided regarding your final categorization, you discover a lot about yourself—maybe more than you wanted to know!

When I first create a character for my books, I complete a Character Description form. I’ve created a template and customized it to my liking, that contains tons of information about each of my characters. Of course, it lists all the expected information like age, height, weight, hair and eye color, etc. But it’s not just about what they look like. There are other general questions that are expected in a character profile—What is their goal? What is preventing them from reaching it? What do they fear?

I’ve tweaked my template so it now includes questions that are not normally found on a character sheet. Questions like: What are some of their quirks? What actions of others exasperate them? If they could describe themselves in one word, what would it be? Do they have a lot of close friends or only one they really trust? What type of car do they drive and what state is it in? What events in their life do they remember most clearly—do they tend to be bad or good?

While searching the internet for questions other people use in their character sheets, I came upon an extremely detailed one on the Novel Factory website. There's always room for more questions—more ways to dive deeper into your characters.

I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. When complete, all this information ensures I know them well enough to understand how they would respond during certain events and conversations that arise in the book. Once I really comprehend who they are, I choose which personality category I feel best fits them, which provides even more detail. Then if I'm struggling with how they should act in a particular scene, I can look back at my Character Description notes and remind myself what makes them who they are.

I love it when my characters take me in directions I never expected when I’m writing. Usually, I have a pretty good idea of where my book is headed. Maybe every single chapter or scene isn’t written yet, or even outlined, although I generally have an overall plan for my story’s direction. But one of the most exciting things that happens sometimes when I write, is when my characters demand that I take a different route. My outline may say, for example, that at this point in the story, the main character tells their husband they want a divorce. But as I’m writing, the character takes over, and they scream at me. No! I refuse! I don’t want a divorce yet! And before I know it, I’m writing a scene where they have make-up sex instead!

I believe wholeheartedly that this writer-hijack phenomenon, as I like to call it, only happens when I’ve gotten to know my characters extremely well. I write with their voices in my head. It’s as if I am them. When I truly understand who they are inside-and-out, I become them when I write. If you’re not a writer, it’s hard to describe. But if you are one, I bet you know exactly what I’m talking about. As an author, it’s one of the most fulfilling experiences I have when I write—when my characters expropriate my typing fingers and run away with the story!

In my Character Description, I not only pick their personality type, using the MBTI or some other methodology and answer questions about their tastes, friends, and quirks, I also often write a complete backstory. What defining moment in their past changed their life trajectory? What is their relationship like with their parents? Who is their best friend and how did they meet? Do they have a significant other, and if so, how did they find each other, and what is the romance like now? But these aren't just questions I reply to on their behalf—they are actual scenes or stories that provide answers to those questions.

There are so many things to know about each of my characters that at some point, I have to decide which of them are important for the story. In other words, if my character will never get near a body of water, is it really important if I know whether she can swim? Maybe in the next book she will go on a sailing trip with her best friend, and it will be important. But perhaps, for the book I’m currently writing, it might not matter. Part of my job, when I write my characters’ backstories, is also understanding what I don’t need to know—yet.

As I mentioned earlier, I took several personality tests over the years when I worked in the corporate world. For those who want to know, I am an ENFP (Extroverted, Intuitive, Feeling and Perceiving). The good traits of this personality type are that I am friendly, energetic, creative, and innovative. But I’m easily distracted by the next shiny, new thing, and can be overwhelmed when faced with too many options. I also tend to take criticism personally (I’m working on that!) and may do things I don’t really enjoy just to receive the approval of others.

Everyone has good and bad parts to their personality. Creating believable characters for my fiction novels means understanding every side of them, so I know how they will act in any situation. If you’re a writer, try using one of the free online personality tests such as 16Personalities or 123test to get to know one of your characters better. I think you will find it enlightening and helpful when you write your next scene with that character in it.

Do you know your personality type? Answering deep questions about yourself can be eye-opening. But understanding the way you act, how you respond to others, and discovering your weaknesses and strengths may help you be more successful in all areas of your life. Personality tests aren't just beneficial for understanding fictional characters!

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Thanks for sharing those links. I also base my characters on someone I know. That helps me further predict how they will respond to situations. Having been a teacher, I have had many students who's personalities I can (or did) adapt to a character in my book(s).

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