Novel Boot Camp #2: Creating Deep Realistic Characters

3029426027_b758fb28fdOne of the most common complaints I hear from writers is, “I don’t know how to make my characters seem realistic!” *cue sad music*

These writers have often tried a variety of character development methods. They might have worksheets and spreadsheets and character interviews. They might know their character’s favorite color, most attractive feature, and every moment of their childhood in chronological order. But none of these things create a realistic character.

You might be gasping in terror because you are certain that your character development exercises have helped you, and they probably have. There’s nothing wrong with that type of character development.

The problem arises when personality replaces depth.

Now everybody knows that characters have to be deep. But many writers don’t know what this actually means (even when they think they do). After all, depth is a pretty intangible concept, right?

Actually, it’s not! Which is great news for writers. There are actually four tiers of depth, which you can apply to your character right now. Sound exciting? Let’s get started!

Tier One: The Goal

The goal is usually the easiest part of the four tiers. The goal is the thing your character wants. It may be deep or superficial, but it is always tangible. This means it must be possible for the reader to clearly identify when the goal has been achieved.

If the goal is too broad or abstract, the character might feel as if she’s running around in circles for no particular reason. This is a problem that will cause the reader to constantly ask why your character is doing what they’re doing.

The key to making your character’s goal work in your novel, is that the character must be actively pursuing the goal.

For the sake of clarity, let’s follow a character through the four tiers. This character is named Lisa and her goal is to get into a great college. Note how getting into college is a tangible goal. The reader will definitely know whether or not the goal is achieved in the end.

We will come back to Lisa later, but for now let’s move on to Tier Two.

Tier Two: Motivation

While your character might be motivated to eat a sandwich, go to work, or make their bed in the morning, nobody is going to read a book about your character jumping from superficial motivation to superficial motivation. When we talk about motivation within a novel, we are talking about something much bigger, much deeper, and much harder to convey.

Motivation is your character’s desire to achieve a specific emotional state. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone did this in the most “on the nose” way possible with the Mirror of Erised. Harry looks in the mirror and he sees himself with his parents, happy and loved. While Harry never gets his parents back, and your character probably won’t get his or her best case scenario either, we can still see that the state Harry wanted to achieve was one of being loved, accepted, and happy.

If your character looked in the mirror of Erised, what would he or she see?

The answer to this question is not just a component of your novel, it’s the backbone of the entire story. It is what gets your character to put one foot in front of the other and move towards their goal.

If you don’t get motivation right (or if you keep motivation at a level that is too superficial) your character will never ring true.

Let’s take a deeper look at motivation.

Motivation Exists Before the Story Starts

This is a very important part of motivation and I would guess that it is the piece of the puzzle most likely to be missed by aspiring writers. Your character’s motivation must exist before the start of the story.

Harry didn’t suddenly realize he wants to be loved once he got to Hogwarts. He wanted to be loved before his adventure even started. In fact, we can trace those hurt feelings and that sense of isolation all the way back to his infancy.

Motivation and Goals Are Not the Same Thing

The worst mistake a writer can make when thinking about motivation is assuming that goals and motivation are the same thing. They are not.

A goal is something the character wants for emotional reasons.

Motivation is the emotional reason the character wants to achieve that goal.

If you make the mistake of equating goals with motivation, your novel will not hold together. It is impossible to sustain interesting and meaningful conflict across a novel length work with goals alone. Most goals are just too easy to achieve.

A good sign that your novel lacks motivation is if you find you are having to search your brain for obstacles to throw in your character’s path in order to make the story take long enough to fill a novel. Replacing your character’s motivation with simple goals creates major structural problems in a novel (I’m going to talk more about structuring around characterization later).

Now, let’s revisit Lisa, whose goal is to get into college. A writer would have a really hard time sustaining interesting conflict across an entire novel with this goal alone. There simply isn’t enough “juice” in that goal to keep things going. Even though Lisa’s goal isn’t shallow, it’s still not deep enough.

So what is Lisa’s motivation? Lisa wants to go to college because she wants the acceptance and security that comes with being wealthy and having a good job.

When you focus on motivation, not goal, you open yourself up to a lot more possibilities for conflict. For example, if Lisa is motivated by the security and acceptance of wealth, she might also date a man simply because he’s wealthy, she might become suicidal when she fails a class (because now she will be stuck in poverty forever), and she might struggle in her relationships with her family because she believes they could get out of poverty if they tried hard enough.

This character is suddenly starting to feel very real and complex isn’t she? Well, we’re not done yet!

Tier three: The Deep Dark Belief

Motivations are much deeper and more meaningful than goals, but there’s actually something even deeper than motivation, and that is your character’s deep dark belief.

Your character’s motivation is caused by a particular belief he has about himself, others, or the world around him. This is his deep dark belief. 

Let’s look at our example above. We know that Lisa wants to go to college (goal) because she wants the security and acceptance that comes with wealth (motivation).  But why is Lisa so afraid of poverty? What is her deep dark belief?

Well, Lisa believes that people who live in poverty cannot be accepted by society and aren’t as valuable as those with wealth.

Now let’s travel even deeper into Lisa’s brain…

Tier Four: The Origin of the Deep Dark Belief

The origin of the belief is a profound event in the character’s life that led them to develop a particular belief about the world.

4835746606_04946f813bThis event is usually traumatic in nature and preys on our deepest human fears: abandonment, physical harm, ridicule, rejection, etc.

So let’s explore the origin of Lisa’s belief. When Lisa was in grade school, her mother abandoned her to marry a rich man. This led Lisa to believe that rich people are more secure and valuable (her deep dark belief), which led her to want to be rich so she can experience that security and value (her motivation), which led her to want desperately to get into a good college (her goal).

So let’s recap.

The Four Tiers of Character Depth

In order to write a compelling and realistic character, you must include these four tiers of depth:

1. The Goal: This is the superficial achievement the character is shooting for.
2. The Motivation: This is the emotional reason the character wants to achieve that goal.
3. The Deep Dark Belief: This is the belief that leads the character to the motivation.
4. The Origin of the Belief: This is the event(s) that caused the character to develop their belief.

If you can provide your character with all four tiers of depth, you will almost certainly have a character that rings true for readers, and you will be well on your way to crafting a strong novel.


For your homework assignment, work on discovering the four tiers of depth in your main character. You might also want to do this for significant side characters. Here are questions to help keep you on track. These questions can be answered in any order. These four pieces need to work together, so start with what you know and build from there.

I am including sample answers to help you better understand the questions.

1. What tangible goal does your character want to achieve?

Tim wants to visit his father’s home town to meet his father’s surviving relatives.

2. What emotion/feeling motivates your character to achieve this goal?

He is motivated by a deep sense that he doesn’t belong anywhere.

3. Why does your character think this goal will satisfy their motivation?

Meeting his father’s family will give him a sense that he belongs because they are his flesh and blood.

4. What belief is underlying the emotional motivation of the character?

He believes he can never truly belong anywhere within his adoptive family and that his own flesh and blood are the only people that will truly accept him.

5. What experience/event is underlying the character’s belief?

He was treated poorly by his adoptive father who viewed him as a lesser member of the family due to being adopted.

6. Put together what you’ve written into a single cohesive sentence.

Due to being treated like an outcast by his adoptive father, Tom believes the only way he can ever really belong is by going to his biological father’s hometown to meet and connect with his own flesh and blood.

This sounds curiously like the beginning of a query letter, does it not? *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*

In Summary

Creating these four tiers of depth is often the hardest part of the writing process, especially if you developed the plot before developing the character. If this is you, you’re now faced with the task of making the characterization fit the plot, which can be time consuming and tricky.

If you struggle with this exercise, don’t give up! Once all the pieces click into place, you’ll be rewarded with a strong, cohesive novel.

14779520072_914171dbb7_oDiscussion Question (please discuss in the comment section below):

Which tier do you find most difficult to develop?

This post is a part of Novel Boot Camp. If you don’t know what that is, click here.

33 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #2: Creating Deep Realistic Characters

  1. cbowers911 says:

    This wasn’t too hard for me in that my novel is based on a true story about my life. I had to rewrite my Part 2 and Part 4 once I really saw the difference in what each one was asking. My original answers were the same for both…eeek.
    Thank you so much for this information; I only wish I would have written my query letter.

  2. C Smithicks says:

    From my current novel:
    Valerie’s neglectful, emotionally distant aunt told her all the time, she was “just like her mother” – a woman who killed her family and committed suicide; now, as an adult, Valerie is trying to prove her mother’s innocence because she is scared her mother’s psychological issues may be hereditary… and if her mother wasn’t innocent of the horrific crime, who’s to say Valerie won’t end up like her?

  3. Gregory says:

    This is a fantastic post. As an aspiring author character has become my next big step in being a more complete writer and the clarity this article brings is refreshing.

    Beautiful thing is it mimicks real psychology like Waking the Tiger, NLP or even 4th way teachings.

  4. lindavdr says:

    Hi Ellen,
    Does this mean that the Deep Dark Belief happens to be more or less the same thing as the Flaw? Or is the Flaw a result from the Belief? In short, how do these two relate to each other?

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