10 Tips for Writing Believable Characterization

The Walt Disney Studios are renowned as being masters of characterization. For decades they have created strong, unforgettable connections between the viewer and the myriad of characters that evolved from the minds of the studio’s animators, artists and writers.

The following is a short list of necessary ingredients to make your characters as believable as the ones Disney created.

1. History
To actually know why the character acts the way he does, the reader must be told the backstory. As a writer, show family history and important life experiences that make the character act and think the way they do. It’s important to weave the history of each main character into your book for the reader to make a real connection.

2. Dialogue
It’s important to give each of your characters a unique way of speaking. It might be a dialect, or certain phrases or a word they often use. If a character is Irish (like the father in my book) he needs to sound Irish. To make dialogue believable, research words, phrases and dialect common to the area where the character lives.

3. Physical Description
This is the first thing that identifies your character. Certainly include their height, weight, hair and eye color, but go beyond that and add something unique or quirky. This can include nervous gestures, the way they walk, or their style of clothing.

4. Name
Does the name suit your character? Most of us envision a person based on their name before we ever meet them. An exception would be if you wish to hide who your character really is behind a name that doesn’t fit. For instance, if the antagonist has an innocent sounding name, that would make him seem less likely to be the serial killer in your story.

5. Strengths and Weaknesses
Choose each character’s strengths and weaknesses. Some virtuous characters have an unpleasant side to them they don’t often display. Likewise, even a villain can have endearing traits. Show the character’s internal as well as external struggles.

6. Goals
Define a goal for each character early in the story and use it to build your plot. Keep in mind that goals can change as the character develops (i.e. a self-centered man consumed by wealth becomes a philanthropist). Use both large and small goals for each character.

7. Fears
Everyone, including your characters, have something they fear in life. Figure out what your character is most afraid of, and then make him or her face it by the end of your book.

8. Create A Nemesis
By definition a nemesis is a ‘long-standing rival; an archenemy’ or ‘the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall’. The nemesis doesn’t necessarily have to be an enemy, but someone who comes between the main character and his goal. In some stories the nemesis isn’t even a person. It could be a natural disaster, an animal or an illness that has to be overcome for the goal to be reached.

9. Friends and Family
These are people in the main characters inner circles who have played important roles in shaping their personalities and their perceptions about life. Show how your characters interact with them or, if they are not alive or live far away, write scenes that cause the reader to realize their importance.

10. Skills and Abilities
A character’s skills and abilities can get him out of a bad situation or prevent him from ending up in one. Does your character have an education, special training or even a hobby? How can these be used to develop the plot?