How to Make Your Characters More Realistic

Last week we asked you to take a break from your work-in-progress, to give it space to breathe and to refill your creative cup. Now we want to take you back into your manuscript to look at your characters. If you have a finished first draft, this is a great place to start the editing process. If you’re mid-draft, these ideas will help you build better characters as you move forward.

How to Make Your Characters More Realistic with


What are you doing to build a better character? 

What do your characters truly want in life, what they are most afraid of, and what are their greatest strengths and weaknesses? What pisses them off? What brings them joy beyond measure? And how do you figure all that out?

Some writers just know this stuff. Their characters have been whispering to them for months or years. The rest of us have to dig a little deeper to get in touch with our characters’ hearts and souls. Even if they reveal all to you, spending time to explore your characters’ terrain may yield gems that will enrich your story and deepen the bonds between your reader and characters.

The key to getting to know these elusive creatures, just like with people in real life, is to spend some quality one-on-one time with them. Below I’ve included exercises to help you collect the information you need to get to know your characters and send them walking and talking through the pages of your book.


Make a vision board

Make a physical or digital vision board on which you collect images and words that describe each of your main characters. Collect pictures of people that look like them, items they would own or covet, and places they want to live or visit. Cut pictures out of magazines or draw them to make a physical board. Use a public or private Pinterest board to keep digital pictures. Update these boards as you find new items that fit. Before you dive into a scene in which your characters appear, look over the boards, step into their skin, and inspire your writing.


Write a letter or diary entry

Write letters from one character to another in your story. If the character is a villain, rival for a loved one’s affection, or a government agent, have her write a letter in that capacity. Another option is to write diary entries describing things that people who play that role might do. The villain might record the details of her latest caper; the romantic rival might wax poetic about her desire for your main character’s love; the government agent might record thoughts on her latest findings. The point is to put the character in her role, and give her free rein.


Write the character’s backstory

Take the moment your character enters the story, and write back from there. What happened in the hour before that moment? What about the days, weeks and months prior? Go as far back in time as required to get a feel for who this person is, what brought her into your story, and what her plans are. Consider mundane moments, but also the pivotal ones that created her worldview. 


Use people you know

You can use your friends and family as stand-ins until your character sheds the disguise. This sounds risky, but it’s a way to get started. It allows you to touch someone real while you’re finding your way. Later, as your character develops, go back and change the name and parts that don’t fit. Author Johnny B. Truant likens this to using lighter fluid to get your fire started. As long as you burn off the fluid before you put your food on the grill, everything will be fine.


Thirty-minute sprints

Spend thirty minutes a day with your characters for a week. Put your characters in mundane or extraordinary circumstances and see how they react. Be the fly on the wall and record your observations through free writing. Use this list of circumstances and add others you like. 

  1. First kiss
  2. Eating a favorite meal
  3. First job
  4. Learning to drive a car
  5. Going camping
  6. Clothes shopping
  7. Visiting her parents
  8. Getting haircut
  9. Stuck in traffic
  10. Receiving news of the death of a loved one


Let us know how it went

What did you discover about your fictional friends? Do you have other means of getting to know your characters? I invite you to share your methods and the results of your exploration in the comments below.



If you liked this post and want more from Writership, join our crew. You’ll receive our newsletter and a free copy of Cast Your Net with Writership, a collection of 25 exercises to inspire your fiction.

Name *
Cast Your Net with Writership , 25 Exercises to Inspire Your Fiction by Leslie Watts


Image courtesy of heckmannoleg/