How do I write characters that are more grounded, complex and believable so that readers can resonate with them and makes my novel more compelling?

How should I elaborate their dialogues and actions that adds more immersion in the story?

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    Related, possibly duplicate: writing.stackexchange.com/q/49511/23927
    – F1Krazy
    Jul 23, 2020 at 13:40
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    This is a huge improvement and seems to ask the same core question. Nice rewrite! BTW, being a duplicate isn't really a bad thing, it may just mean you missed someone else having asked approximately the same question (and gotten at least one good answer).
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jul 23, 2020 at 13:49
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    I imagine and write conversations between my main characters. These don't always go in the main story, but they help me give each character a distinctive voice.
    – NomadMaker
    Jul 24, 2020 at 21:04

4 Answers 4


We write best the things we love best. People are the real world model for characters, so if you want to write better characters, pay more attention to people. Try to see them as they really are, not just your image of them, or their demographic categories, or your judgements about them. If you can love someone because of their flaws, not just in spite of them, you'll be well on your way to writing better characters.

That's the organic answer. From a more technical point of view, I'm a fan of Marilyn Hacker and Samuel Delany's three-point checklist for well-rounded characters. They need to have actions in the narrative that are:

a) Functional - serve a necessary role in the larger plot
b) Habitual/Characteristic - distinctive personal actions that are representative of them individually
c) "Gratuitous" - neither habitual nor functional

Less well-rounded characters often have only one or two of the above. They are there to serve the plot, or there to add color to the narrative, or they have some memorable trait, but not all three.

As with anything else in your book, giving a character a complete backstory (for your own information, not necessarily to end up on the page!) and a wealth of sensory detail (what do they sound like? what do they look like? what do they smell like?) helps make them feel more real. Another mechanical trick I've learned that can help create a memorable character is to give them a symbolic object of some sort --a locket, or a sword, or a pocket-watch --that helps physicalize some aspect of their personality.

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    Great answer!! I'd also add a suggestion though - you mentioned to 'see them as they really are not just ... their demographic categories'. One thing that makes a character memorable is that they do things that are opposite to their demographic, or the people around them. Handy technique for creating the habits or characteristics of a main character you want to stand out - works for a good or an evil one, depending on the trait you use. So, studying real-life demographics isn't altogether a bad thing as long as it doesn't bias your judgement of someone. Jul 24, 2020 at 15:27
  • really REALLY Nice answer! - adding to the backstory part of your answer; there could be some connection as well - like - (previously) , for example when you said a symbolic object of some sort - a sword or a locket - (especially the locket, got me thinking of -say 2 childhood friends that has 2 "symbolic objects" and these objects maybe can be connected (say, a key to the locket) if they ever would sorta-say "part-ways" note this is just my thought; that I just wrote out; no real advice, just a additional-comment. have it great! Oct 19, 2022 at 10:36

This may sound odd but don't put yourself in a character's shoes. Put the character in uncomfortable shoes.

What I mean is this:

People are more different than you can imagine. I developed a neurological problem that gave me a taste of what it was like to be someone else. To filter out different things from the world; to form beliefs differently; to experience things that many people talk about but had been alien to me, and much more. It's earth-shaking how different people are and there are many things that are impossible to imagine if you have not experienced them.

That's not to say you shouldn't try to get into a character's head, and imagine what it's like to be them. You should. But it's not about putting yourself in their place, immersing yourself in their backstory and motives. It's about probing the enigma of what it is like to be them—something that you can never fully attain but must try to.

As for the second part—in any good story, the characters are often outside of their comfort zone; their identity is challenged. As if it wasn't hard enough to understand who they are, you then have to put them in positions where it's hard for them to be who they are!

In terms of how this translates into writing, here are some simple examples:

  • some characters will be "noticing this" or "ignoring that" frequently
  • a character can show subtle signs of impatience all the time
  • a character might be future-oriented (seeming to always bring useful things or have a plan) or quick-witted
  • a character with high anxiety or low confidence might ask a lot of questions (which can also be a useful writing device)
  • a character might generally use a lot of sarcasm but do this less when discussing something that scares them or is meaningful to them
  • a narcissist will restate someone else's ideas sometime later in a conversation as if they were their own; ignore people; steer the subject to things that interest them
  • a shy character could be put on the spot (asked a question in public) and not cope with it; perhaps having a friend get them out of the situation
  • a quick-witted character will screw something up in haste
  • an observant character will read too much into a series of co-incidences
  • characters will commit to overcoming one of their flaws but will later forget or not realise they are still making that mistake, because it's very hard to change one's nature

As you can see there is a lot of "show, don't tell" going on here and some of it is hard to notice but the little things add up in the reader's mind.

One side-note about villains—psychopaths are not necessarily sadists, and vice versa. Making a villain be both is very cliché and likely to end up with a 1-dimensional character.

  • exemplary answer. especially it's structure how it was written! the first sentence explains it all! thanks! don't put yourself in a character's shoes. Put the character in uncomfortable shoes. this is so Powerful. of course there is edge cases for everything; and some times it maybe might be a good idea to "put yourself in the character's shoes" - for example if one is writing a character that has a same-thing(a problem, or something) as one self (rare maybe but probably happens once here n there) but I totally agree on the whole post, marvelously written! 10/10! Oct 19, 2022 at 10:44

This is a big question, so I'm not even going to attempt to give a complete answer. Let me just mention a couple of points that I really notice when an author does NOT do right.

One: In real life, people often have complex motivations. When making an important decision, a person will routinely have several reasons for deciding the way they do.

I sometimes hear a silly criticism of politicians that goes like this: "Yesterday the president said that he was proposing this new policy to bring peace to the Middle East. Today he said that he is doing it to help the US economy. So which is it, huh? huh? Was he lying yesterday or is he lying today?" But that's often a silly criticism. He might well be doing it for both reasons and a dozen others.

Oh, of course I don't expect every trivial decision in a story to have complex motivation, or for you to explain the motivation. If you say that a character stopped at a store and bought a candy bar, I don't expect an in depth discussion of why the owner chose to build a store at this spot and why they are selling candy bars. But for the big decisions that a character makes in a story -- why the hero decides to start a revolution or which man the heroine picks to marry or whatever -- should be complex enough to be interesting. If you can sum it up in one sentence, it's probably not interesting enough.

Two: Related to that, avoid making characters 100% good or 100% evil. It's common advice to say that the hero should have flaws that he must overcome in the course of the story. I think it's also important for the villain to have justifications for his actions that sound at least remotely plausible. In real life, even the worst villains rarely say, "I will destroy all that is good and right!!" and then burst into fiendish laughter. Usually it's more like, "Yes, I suppose there have been some excesses. But we have no choice. We must fight these people because they have betrayed our country and are selling us out to our enemies for profit. I regret that some innocent people have suffered, and we must take steps to protect the innocent, but we can't let that paralyze us into doing nothing while these people destroy us." Etc.

This is especially true if you are creating villains who represent a political position or ideology or religious beliefs or whatever that you don't like. I've read many book and seen many movies where it's very obvious what the political (or whatever) views of the writer are, because everybody from his party is good and reasonable and likable, and everybody from the other party is evil and stupid and obnoxious. If you have trouble writing someone you disagree with without making him constantly screaming incoherently, you need to do some research and find out what these people actually say in real life.

In general, avoid making characters too simple. I recall when I watched Star Wars Episode 1 that I thought to myself, You know, every character in this story can be completely described in one sentence. There's the arrogant young man who's sure he knows it all, the wise old teacher, the politician who is only interested in power, etc. Yes, any story will have minor characters who have to be kept simple to avoid cluttering up the story. But if you can completely sum up a main character in one sentence, your characters aren't interesting enough.


Welcome to WSE, @{Ishan2077} !

I will provide the intuition you must use for this purpose. In my opinion, there is no such way to accomplish things in novel-writing. But by noting your requirements (from your inspiration or sales-pitch), you can close in. The whole point is to narrow down the choices through intelligent analysis.

Each novel, or any literary piece for that matter, is driven by its characters.

So - it should be no surprise that the construction of characters is tied to the theme of the novel, or to be precise, its environment. Begin with an environment/setting of your choice; this will guide you to the kind of characters that populate this world. Now - if you have a more traditional setting, you can make good use of timeless classical tropes in literature, such as the 'swashbuckler' and the 'old hag' (Remember Indiana Jones and Cruela De Vil).

If you go for a more rebellious set of characters, you must intentionally flout the rules your setting poses. For example, Jane Austen's novels provide female protagonists who resent the way society suppresses their will, particularly in the choice of husbands. To do this, you must first figure out the rules.

It is helpful to maintain journals to explore your characters. You must know your character inside out: needs, requirements, emotional state, perception, and last but not the least, physical features. A good way to get more insight into character-building is by reading more books, and paying attention. Don't read for sport; read to process the characterization. And details like accents and tics go a long way in differentiating your characters. It is not necessary your character be justifiable or likeable. They must be believable.

Your next challenge after you do your homework regarding this will be putting together a story.

Good luck with that!

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