Believable Character Development

By Shelley Widhalm

Writers typically start with a theme, plot, or character to get into their novel. Still, major and minor characters need some scaffolding, whatever the launching point.

An agriworld in the Mirgoshir system in the Star Wars universe, for those of you with less time than others.


Characters have to be realistic for the world they inhabit to be believable. If they’re flat, then readers won’t care about the actions they take or the world they move in, even if it happens to be Pandora or Agamar.

The world or what the characters do can be extraordinary, even unbelievable at first. Still, the characters themselves need realistic motives, actions, and reactions. Otherwise, if they don’t behave in ways that aren’t authentic, readers won’t accept anything else about them.


For believability to occur, characters have to suffer and suffer badly with the paths they choose, anything but easy. Their characteristics, flaws, motives, and desires determine how they’ll respond to problems, roadblocks, and frustrations.

The primary character also called the protagonist and is sometimes the narrative point-of-view needs to be complex with background information, personality traits, and ways of acting, behaving, and responding to the novel’s time, place, and overall setting. They need to be rounded with a complete identity, not a flat or clichéd actor that only engages in action and motion without any kind of depth.

Characters need development like chocolate formed into a Santa and wrapped in foil to give it color and identity.

Character Questionnaire

The depth of character building can be explored with a character questionnaire that includes physical description, hometown, family and upbringing, and relationships.

We could even dig into favorites, like books, movies, and music.

Thinking about details that build a character’s identity can help engage our imagination.

How do they dress? Speak? Behave?

What is their job? Does it align with their goals or is it a divergence?

How do they think about themselves?

Do they have a quirk or nervous tick?

Character Motivation Identification

Once the POV character’s identity is laid out, think about their goals and motivations and what could be blocking their progress.

What do they want above all else?

What do they fear?

What don’t they know about themselves?

Do they have secrets?

Do they have an unlikable quality?

Ask about their purpose in life. Think about long-term and short-term goals. Delve into how the character will grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as the story unfolds.

A complete history and background check aren’t necessary. Still, it does provide a starting point to making the words on the page become real. To add to that believability, look at the descriptions you compiled, as well as any sensory details you can come up with, working your way into the character’s mind and way of thinking. Write from your subconscious and knowledge and experience of other people who aren’t like you as you dig into the character.

Character Profiling

As you write about the character, you can do a few things to gather material to further build her identity.

  • Empathize or imagine how it feels to be that person. Put yourself in the character’s body physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually and figure out how she would think when alone and with others. 
  • Interview people who remind you of the character to gather details and sensations about how it feels to do what that character does and be who the character is.
  • Listen to how other people speak and the words they use. As a general rule, females use more personal pronouns, such as “I,” “you,” and “we,” and descriptive terms. In contrast, males use more active verbs and fewer adjectives. Women tend to state preferences instead of demands and use apologetic language. At the same time, men are more commanding and do not divulge as much personal information as do women.

By bringing together the character identity list with imagining that character, the plot naturally unfolds since the character starts behaving independently, chasing their wants and needs. I believe that scaffolding of character development allows for the magic of storytelling that can only come from exploration, understanding, and belief.

Nine Ingredients of Character Development

Character Motivation

Incorporating Empathy into Character Development

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