What Makes A Character Believable?

01/01/2015 Discussions, Reading, Writing 35

What makes a character believable?I think everyone has read one of those books that in theory, should be great: it has an interesting concept, a good plot, a killer twist, skilful world-building if it’s sci-fi or fantasy… but for some reason, something about it just doesn’t click. Although it should be right up your street, it just doesn’t do it for you.

One of the biggest reasons I find for this when it happens is the characters: if they just aren’t convincing then how am I ever going to enjoy reading about them? Even in fantasy and sci-fi where a suspension of belief is required on behalf of the reader, you have to be able to believe the characters could exist in the universe of the story if you are going to care about them at all.

The last book I can remember reading where I felt the characters ruined a good story was Hugh Howey’s Wool: whilst for the most part I liked the heroine Juliette, Lukas (the ‘love interest’) as a character I felt was all over the place, and Juliette falling in love with a character like him seemed inconsistent with her own character.

These badly drawn characters can completely destroy a book for me, and so as someone who not only reads fiction but also writes it, I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes characters believable. Here’s what I came up with (and I’d love to know your thoughts!):

Characters must be non-stereotyped.

Stereotypes are by nature, flat and unrealistic. A stereotype is essentially a shortcut to convey a lot of information about a character in a short space of time, so the author doesn’t have to worry too much about character building. The result? Characters that make you roll your eyes in exasperation: another blonde, brainless American cheerleader? Another impossibly handsome stranger with a supernatural secret? Another fantasy damsel-in-distress? No one person in real life embodies a stereotype, and so neither should believable characters!

Characters must have realistic dialogue.

Characters who speak in full, grammatically correct English all the time? Youngsters who abbreviate every other word, so that they’re practically incomprehensible? Scottish people, who actually say ‘och aye the noo!’? All make a character less believable – it’s all far too ‘stylised’ and/or stereotyped. Now, I’m not saying authors should write dialogue how people actually speak, with every ‘erm’ and ‘um’ included, but if you can’t practically hear a character talking when you’re reading the book, then for me it’s not working.

Characters must have consistent personality traits.

Now I know characters develop throughout a novel or perhaps end up not being what they seem, and I love that! When someone you thought was an out-and-out villain shows a softer side or someone you thought was one of the good guys turns out to be corrupt and you just didn’t see it coming it really adds to the drama and makes the characters seem more complex and three-dimensional. But only if it’s believable. If the author plants hints here and there which you only really notice after the truth comes out it can be believable for a character to suddenly change, as they are just showing their true colours. However, if it seems like the author just suddenly decided to take the plot in a different direction and needed a character to completely change in order to do it then it can be jarring and incredibly off-putting.

Characters must have believable motivation.

Everyone wants something, whether that something is a day off work, a snack, kids or a huge lottery win (although who wouldn’t want that!), and characters should be no different. If Frodo didn’t desperately want to destroy the Ring and save the Shire (plus the rest of Middle Earth) from Sauron, then why would he trek all the way to Mordor? Not for a holiday, that’s for sure! And if Katniss didn’t love her sister then why would she volunteer to go into The Hunger Games in her place?

Often the biggest character motives are love, wealth or the pursuit of knowledge, but it really could be anything so long as it makes sense for that character. A selfless character, for example, would be motivated by the need to save others, whilst a greedy character will mainly be motivated by the desire to accumulate wealth or material possessions. However, if a character seemingly has no motivation, and there are no reasons behind their actions, then how are we supposed to believe in them? No one does anything for no reason, however subtle that reason is, and so in my opinion, neither should characters!

What makes a character believable?

So, I’d love to know, what do you think makes characters believable? Do you agree with my ideas, or do you have any more of your own? And have you read any books recently with unconvincing characters?

35 Responses to “What Makes A Character Believable?”

  1. Gemma

    A great post! I agree with everything you’ve written here. I particularly agree about realistic dialogue – if a character’s speech sounds unrealistic I find it draws attention away from what they’re actually saying! Another thing which I think makes characters more believable is their flaws – no one is perfect so it goes without saying that characters shouldn’t be either!

    • Laura

      It definitely distracts from what characters are actually saying when the dialogue is unrealistic, because all you can think about is how bad the dialogue is! And character flaws is a really good one. I hate books where the main character is set up as some kind of perfect hero/heroine, because not only is it unrealistic but you just can’t relate to them at all, and I think it makes them really unlikable (which I guess is the opposite of what the author intended!). Believable characters definitely need flaws, so that’s a great point!

  2. Jillian @ Jillian's Books

    LOVE THIS POST! I feel like you just stated every thing that a character should and should NOT have! 🙂 I hate it when characters are stereotyped. I once read Haven by Kristi Cook, and the beginning was literally like Twilight – you know: new girl goes to school, new girl meets suspicious (yet handsome) boy. Ugh, I was sick of that, honestly. And I agree that characters should have a realistic motive that leads them to do stuff. Because if the author doesn’t provide a good enough motive for the characters, technically I’d feel it’s useless to read the book 😛

    Great post! I love the points you gave out <3

    • Laura

      I’m so glad you liked the post! 😀
      I hate that so much when you start reading a book and then think, ‘hey wait, this is exactly like that other book!’, and I think it’s mostly because some authors try and replicate characters and plots to the point where they then become stereotypes. I’m definitely sick of the whole ‘new girl meets suspicious yet handsome boy’ thing too, because it’s just so overdone I can’t take those kinds of characters seriously at all anymore (especially if the new girl is tomboyish/pretty but doesn’t know it/selfless – basically Bella Swann!). And I definitely agree that it’s useless reading the book if the author doesn’t give characters enough motive. If they have no motive then you’d think they wouldn’t do anything, and then there’d be no story!
      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Lola

    Great post! I love it when character are realistic and it can really make or break a book for me soemtimes, but I never really thought about what realistic means. I think you pretty much nialed it down in this post.
    Stereotypes can play a part, but I like it when character turn out to be much more and have more depth then the initial stereotype idea, I have read some books which did this well, although in general give me a unique character over a stereotype.
    Consistent personality traits are one of the most important things for me, if a character is supposed to be like A, but then acts the opposite of that it really rubs me wrong.
    Motivations are also really important and I love learning what drives characters, but if they just do things for the sake of it, it can feel really flat.

    • Laura

      You definitely have a point about the whole stereotypes thing – I have read some books where you meet a character and assume they are going to fit in with a certain stereotype and then they turn out to be totally different, and I really like when that happens! And I think that’s still realistic too because I suppose in real life you can make assumptions about people because you’ve related that person to a stereotype, and then they turn out to be completely different than you thought.
      And I love learning what drives characters too, and I think when authors hide characters motivations for quite a while then it can make the whole book a lot more exciting, and the characters even more real, because they obviously have depths. Characters with no motivation definitely feel flat!
      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Charlie Anderson

    I agree with all of your points. The worst books I’ve read are the ones where the MCs compromise their character and things in that vein take a turn for the absurdly unbelievable. I read a handful like that last year and I guess you could say I was a bit bitter after finishing the books. Like Lola, I enjoy when a character turns out to be more than what we interpreted them as for the majority of the book. One thing I’ve noticed (or maybe it’s just my perception) is that I’m finding “filler” dialogue that really doesn’t serve a purpose in furthering character interactions or plot. That’s starting to bother me.

    • Laura

      It really is annoying when characters (especially main characters) suddenly do something totally out of character, and I can definitely understand why you would feel bitter after finishing books where that happens. When I start reading a book I get invested in the characters (even if I don’t really like them), and so when they completely change I end up feeling a bit cheated.
      And I have read a few books recently where I felt there was a lot of filler dialogue, and it can really put me off a book. If it doesn’t contribute to either the plot or character development then there really is no point to it at all, so I definitely agree with you there!
      Thanks for commenting!

  5. Karen Blue

    Yea, I agree with everything you pointed out. I have never really thought about what makes characters believable, I just know what makes then unbelievable when I read it. I recently read an erotic mystery called If I Were You and it hit every cliche for the characters and made it so unbelievable.

    • Terri M., the Director

      I’m with you, Karen. Using tons of cliches makes the whole story fall apart. There’s not a lot of creativity involved when an author does that.

      The books I enjoy most are the ones I connect to with the characters on an emotional level. The reactions of the characters have be relatable or realistic for the situation. It’s probably one reason I had such a hard time connecting with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

      Terri M., the Director
      Second Run Reviews

      • Laura

        There’s definitely no creativity involved when authors use cliches or stereotypes for characters, and even if the plot is good it certainly ruins the entire story.
        And I definitely prefer books where I can connect to characters on an emotional level too. I have never read Gone Girl, as from what I’ve heard about it as the main characters don’t sound very likeable. Characters don’t necessarily need to be ‘good guys’, for me to like them, as I love a lot of anti-hero types characters, but for me they have to have some depths, and some redeeming qualities, and as you say, their reactions have to make sense for the situation and be relatable.

    • Laura

      Character cliches definitely ruin books for me too, as it’s like the author has basically reused characters and their actions always end up being predictable. I like characters with quirks and unique traits a lot better, as they’re so much more believable!
      Thanks for commenting!

  6. Gail

    I LOVED this post. I find this extremely helpful since I’m currently writing. Reading tips like this definitely affects the way I approach my story, especially with my characters.

    I completely agree with your view on stereotyped characters! Taking a flat character and beating the hell out of him to make him more interesting is the best way to do it. That sounded violent, but you know what I mean.

    Gail @ Hey, It’s Gail

    • Laura

      Glad you have found this post helpful! I write some fiction myself and I think creating good characters is definitely one of the hardest things to do.
      And I definitely know what you mean about the stereotyped characters thing! You can use the basics of stereotypes and flesh them out, and give them depths and they can end up as really interesting characters. For example, I like those characters that on the surface appear to be some kind of stereotypical ‘has it all’ kind of person, but then it turns out that it’s actually all a facade.
      Good luck with the writing!

  7. Jackie

    Stereotypes make for dull characters, but sometimes I can get over those. The two mood killers for me are inconsistent characters and characters that lack believable motivation– especially when these two things combine create whiny/angsty/angry characters. Sometimes if I can’t believe their motivation, I can’t buy in to their anger, and that makes me put a book down.

    • Laura

      I definitely agree with you. Inconsistent characters and lack of motivation can definitely end in whiny or angry characters, and I think a lot of authors use ‘anger’ itself as a motivation without explaining why the character is angry, and that just destroys any kind of believability.
      Thanks for commenting!

  8. Ana @ Butterflies of the Imagination

    Awesome post, Laura. I agree with so many of the things you said here. Like you, I’m also a writer so I think it’s especially important for me to understand what makes a believable character so that I can recreate one. Believable motivation is extremely important, or else the whole story would be ruined, and I think the key to this is to set up some backstory that shows how true the motivation is.

    • Laura

      Backstory is definitely a great way to demonstrate a characters motivation! I think a character’s past or background in a lot of ways can contribute to their motivations (like, a character who was brought up in a poor family would maybe be motivated by that to try and become wealthy?), and can definitely show where that motivation came from.
      Best of luck with your writing!

  9. Topaz

    THIS. A THOUSAND TIMES THIS. As a reader + writer myself, I find it so frustrating to see characters who are hastily-drawn and poorly-written. Personally, I absolutely love character-driven stories, and a book with a great plot but horrible character really is not going to get a very good rating from me. It has to be about the people, always. Wonderful post! x

    • Laura

      Thank you!
      Badly written characters are definitely frustrating, and a great plot with bad characters will definitely receive bad ratings from me too. That was kind of the case with the book i mentioned early in the post (Wool by Hugh Howey). The concept sounded great, but the characters just didn’t work for me.
      Thanks for commenting!

  10. C.J. @ ebookclassics

    I completely agree with you as well and laughed about young characters who speak perfectly because I saw a lot of discussion on this specifically about The Fault in Our Stars. Another thing I notice a lot is that maybe the main character is well-developed, but all of the secondary characters are stereotypes and just serve the purpose of helping to move the plot along.

    • Laura

      I have seen that before as well, where the main character is good, but the secondary characters are just stereotypes, and seen as character relationships can make or break a book for me it’s also really off putting. It kind of seems like so much effort has gone into one character that the author has forgotten about the others!
      Thanks for commenting!

  11. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    Totally true. Sometimes flat or unbelievable characters can ruin an otherwise great book! The worst for me is when I can’t emotionally connect with a character because they don’t really respond to the world around them fully – when I feel like I’m just going through the motions with them. One book that felt like this to me was a dystopian with a great concept called The Only Boy – I just felt like I was seeing it all through distant eyes, and it totally ruined it for me.

    • Laura

      That’s true for me as well – if a character doesn’t seemed immersed in the world of the story then it does feel like you’re just going through the motions, and it can totally ruin the book. Especially when it’s written in first person, because you would think that you would be experiencing through the book what it is like to live in that world, so if it feels distant then the character and perspective is obviously not working, and it’s really disappointing in a book where the concept looks good.
      Thanks for commenting!

  12. Valerie

    YES YES YES TO THIS ALL. Sometimes I find absolutely nothing wrong with the book, but I end up just not clicking with the characters at all. Most of the time, I find characters making stupid decisions annoying, but it’s not necessarily the decisions that annoy me, but why or what caused the character to do it when it didn’t seem like they would.

    Awesome post Laura!

    • Laura

      Thank you!
      Characters making stupid decisions is definitely really annoying, and a lot of the time it is because of a lack of convincing motivation. I have read a few books like that recently, and it totally puts me off! Thanks for commenting!

  13. Mel@thedailyprophecy

    Consistent personality traits, yes! I hate it when it doesn’t make sense. Last time I read about a book where a girl was learning to fight, but she didn’t have the feeling for it and she was too clumsy. A couple chapters later she was fighting a group of guys like a professional ninja.. That doesn’t make any sense!

    • Laura

      That really doesn’t make any sense! I’m pretty clumsy myself and I doubt I’ll be pulling any ninja moves any time soon, even with training! I really hate when you read books like that, because if parts of it don’t make sense then it feels like you really can’t believe any of the rest of it. Thanks for commenting!

  14. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    Excellent points. I’ve been reading several of the novels of Willa Cather lately and she excels at character development, making you understand her characters’ motivation even if you may not like or agree with them.

    • Laura

      I think sometimes that’s how you know the characters are really well written – if you don’t agree with the character, or even like them, but you can still see where they are coming from in terms of motivation. I have never read anything by Willa Cather so maybe I should!

  15. Roberta R.

    “Another impossibly handsome stranger with a supernatural secret?”
    Haha, the world is full of them. Not. But apparently, one book out of two has a specimen of those!

    Good point about the motivation, selfless or selfish that it is. Also, any author should study their material of choice firsthand. For example, you can’t simply ASSUME a teen would talk in a certain way, but you should get close to a real one and learn from experience…

    • Laura

      Bad teen dialogue is definitely one of my pet hates in books! I think so many authors just work off a stereotype of how they think a teenager would speak and it just doesn’t work. The best way to make it sound authentic definitely would be to learn from experience and actually listen to different people really speak.
      Thanks for commenting!

  16. Jee Ann

    Ah, dialogues… one of the reasons I’m wary of first person POVs is that the “speaking language” leaks into the action, the tags, the beats, and descriptions, which just bores me or make me gag. There was one story with an interesting premise, until the FMC, also narrator, talks about a guy walking towards her in all his hunky hotness. I wanted to cry!

    • Laura

      That’s definitely a big problem with first person POVs – the dialogue and the actual body of the writing sounds kind of the same, and it really can get boring after a while.

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