Making Fictional Characters Believable

Creating characters for novels does not end with knowing their vital statistics and their marital status. Such information scratches the surface of what lies beneath. How does the writer get to know what drives their characters?

Creating Characters with Drives

Self-discovery and reflection is the key to understanding what makes the characters tick in the novel, otherwise the novel will feel flat and lifeless. The key ingredients are knowledge of the following:
  • Their drives
  • Their greatest fears
  • The thing they want most
  • What they are prepared to do to get it
 Character Motives

The model of the three ego states often provides the key to creating realistic characters after the initial conception and creating character profiles. The three states are:

Id or the Child: This is the most basic ego state and is present from birth. This state is defined by instant gratification and cannot be reasoned with. Basic needs like thirst, hunger and sleep provide the driving force of this state of being up to the age of two. The "Pleasure Principle" describes how the id instinctively avoids pain and seeks pleasure. The developing person attains a higher intelligence, which strives to keep the id in check. Signs that the id has taken over are heightened emotional states.

The Ego or the Parent: The ego state kicks in during childhood, as the individual develops self-awareness. This higher intelligence begins to understand how the world works, asks questions and begins to understand the difference between right and wrong. The ego provides a counterbalance with the id in keeping inappropriate behaviour in check.

The Superego or the Adult. In adulthood, morals, social values and conscience become part of the person. This state views the world from different perspectives and takes time to reflect. The id and the superego often conflict with one another and the ego sits in the middle and tries to negotiate for both.
Creating Characters with Drives

Freud’s theory describes how earlier ego states are imprinted upon the psyche throughout life. Emotional flashbacks occur during particular situations such as family get-togethers and visiting school, or even situations that have no overt connection with the past. Such situations cause an earlier version of the person to surface.

Character's Viewpoint

Writing a novel requires a multi-perspective view of the world, as from the different characters, rather like the superego does. This includes an understanding of how a particular situation might make one character behave in one way, and how this might differ from another character.

Creative Writing Exercise on Character Development

It might be a good idea to think back to one’s own id during early childhood to get to the heart of the characters. Drawing from one’s own childhood experiences and projecting them upon the characters might be a good way of creating convincing drives, motives and fears.

Understanding Protagonists

The author might have experienced loss or resentment due to divorce during the childhood state. This emotion could be drawn from when describing how a fictional character feels about moving to a strange country. This emotion could manifest itself in many ways in the story, for example, an insecurity that drives the character to keep washing their hands or something else that fuels the plot.

Making Characters Believable

The projection of fears, desires and strong emotional states are good ways of creating an authentic core to the character. If the author empathises strongly with the character, this will be reflected within the novel and the reader is likely to feel the same empathy. Breathing life into the novel often means looking deep within oneself to create characters that seem to posses a life of their own.

On my book blog, Nora, the inner thoughts of the main character allow the reader to see that she comes from an underprivileged background despite how she appears. Her inner thoughts called herself a 'jumped up bloody cow.' On the surface, she wears smart attire and speaks with a plumb in her mouth. In the scene on my book blog, Nora, we can sense her shame.
Read more about character drives on my author website
Image credit: Eduard Manet, Olympia
© R Shirley 2010