10 Tips for Writing Believable Main Characters

Writing a book is sort of like baking a cake. Each ingredient is equally as important as the next in order to create a tasty masterpiece. And just like in baking, you can create your own version of a story a hundred different ways. However, there are some elements to writing that are like your staple ingredients – you have to nail them if you want your cake to rise. Think of your plot, setting, and characterization as the eggs, milk, and flour of your story. You need to get these right so that the rest of your story to fall into place. But for now, I’m just focusing on characterization.

And here are 10 tips to writing a solid main character:

We all know the main character is supposed to be the most developed, well-described character in the book. But at the same time, there is such a thing as overdoing it. There’s no use wasting words on character descriptions/information that will serve no purpose to the overall story. Trim the fat and keep it all plot relevant.

Think of your readers like little ducklings looking to imprint on a mother figure to guide them through the story. Your main character is that “maternal figure” they’ll be following throughout the story. That’s why you need to introduce your main character as soon as possible so they can spend the crucial beginning chapters forming a “bond” with the MC. To avoid confusion, the first character you introduce should be the main character.

We all love a good character twist, but if you’re going to reveal something big about your character, make sure that it’s done well. Build up to it in tiny little breadcrumbs rather than just dropping the hammer. If your character is hiding a secret, hint to your audience that they’re hiding a secret. You’re not giving the game away, you’re just preparing your audience for a big reveal. That way, when you do finally reveal something big, your audience isn’t left confused.

Sure, letting us know that a character’s hair is brown and their eyes are blue gives as an idea of what they look like, but it tells us nothing about their personality or motives. A character that is always fidgeting, nervously tapping their fingers, or shifty-eyed tells the reader a whole lot more about their personality or role in the story than just being a brunette. Don’t skimp on describing their behaviors, as that can sometimes be more telling and insightful than basic descriptions of their appearance.

Sure, we love a kickass character that can take on any bad guy in a fight, or a cinnamon roll of a character that is so kind and loving, but we can’t make our characters just one thing. They need to be complex, with their own set of strengths and weaknesses that they grapple with. Just like in life no one is perfect, and neither should your characters be either. And just like your heroes shouldn’t be all good, neither should your villains be all bad. The more “human” your characters are, the more authentic they’ll read on the page.  

It can be hard to create a fresh character. Sometimes, we might feel like we’re writing a trope rather than a person. And when it feels like that, you need to take a step back from the story and really sit with your character. Dig deep and get to know them inside and out. Best way to do this is to write a whole biography for them. It might not make it all into the story (and it shouldn’t) but it’ll give you a better understanding of your character and therefore make it easier for you to translate their essence onto the page so they feel both original and relatable.

If your character feels too much like a “cookie cutter” version of a character, or they’re hard to distinguish from other characters in your story, try switching things up a bit with something that sets them apart. It might a distinctive manner of speaking, or a physical attribute, or even just a unique job – anything that might pique your reader’s interest and make them memorable.

Yes, the whole point of a character’s arc is for them to grow and get outside their comfort zone, but you still need to stay true to your character’s personality. If your character is an introverted homebody, would they really all of a sudden be riding a motorcycle through Burning Man? Probably not. And while a character is allowed to change and grow, these changes should feel organic to the story rather than a “whiplash” change. Otherwise, you risk confusing your reader and pulling them out of the story.   

Your main character should always be an active participant in the story. Many times, new writers make the mistake of allowing the plot to just “happen” to the characters. No. Don’t do that. Your characters, especially your MC, should always have an active role and it should be their actions and reactions that drive the story forward.

Our characters are like our babies. We came up with them, nurtured them, and are trying to tell their story. But sometimes, we also have to make the difficult decision to push them towards the background. Not every character we come up with will be MC material. If you’ve finished your story and you’re reading through it and it just seems like the main character is lackluster, it could be because they’re actually a side character. I once wrote a whole book before I realized my real main character was a side character I had introduced back in chapter three. So, don’t be afraid to switch protagonists, it will only make your story stronger.

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