How to Write Realistic Characters [Novel Boot Camp #4]

Writing characters that feel realistic can be a challenge. In today’s video I give tips on how to make your character seem realistic within the context of your novel. I also provide a list of personality traits and physical traits that are commonly seen as unrealistic by readers.

Video Highlights:

  • When characters don’t feel realistic, it’s normally because they have an overabundance of positive traits.
  • Characters don’t have to seem realistic in the sense that they could exist in reality. They just need to seem realistic or possible within the world of your novel.
  • Internal consistency is another way to make characters feel more realistic. When the character traits, flaw, and motivation all work together, they create a cohesive and realistic whole.

Traits Commonly Seen as Unrealistic

It’s okay to use some of these unrealistic traits so long as they are serving a function in the novel and are not included purely for the purpose of making the character seem better or idealistic.

Using several of these character traits could cause readers to dislike your character and could be seen as a red flag to agents and editors that a writer is an amateur. Of course this depends on how the traits are executed within the novel.

Character traits to use sparingly:

  • An unusual appearance
  • An extremely attractive appearance
  • High contrast between the hair and skin (such as white skin and black hair, or black skin and blond hair)
  • Unusual or unnatural eye colors, especially purple eyes.
  • A normal appearance that is unnaturally mesmerizing
  • Extreme skills or unique skills in a wide variety of areas
  • Skills that were not learned
  • Uselessness (no skills) yet is treated as valuable by other characters in a group
  • An idealistic lifestyle (dates models, drives fast cars, lives in a mansion)

Questions to Ask About Your Novel

1.Does you protagonist have any unrealistic traits?

It’s important for the character to seem realistic within the context of your novel. So long as your character has traits that he or she could have realistically learned, acquired, or been born with, then it’s okay to have a unique or unusual character. But it’s a good idea to avoid giving your character purple eyes or supermodel girlfriends just because it’s cool.

2. Does your protagonist have any traits that could be better justified?

If your main character is a whiz with computers, where did he or she learn that skill? It can be very helpful to provide backstory that explains where skills came from. It’s okay for the character to be highly skilled just because a topic interests them, but make sure to plant those seeds in the reader’s mind early on. A character who suddenly busts out karate moves during the climax is not going to feel realistic.


If you have any questions about writing a realistic character, please post it in the comments below.


Comment Question: Have you read any characters that seemed too unrealistic to believe? What about them made them so unrealistic?

Workshop #1 critiques will be posted later today and every day next week. If you didn’t get a chance to submit last week, the submission form is still open!

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8 thoughts on “How to Write Realistic Characters [Novel Boot Camp #4]

  1. Brett Mumford says:

    I am a big fan of the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, and if there were ever good examples of perfect characters it is his. That being said, the stories themselves are highly enjoyable from the hardcore scifi standpoint, as long as you can accept that the beautiful people are the good guys.

    I noticed this trend in his stories pretty much from the beginning, but I looked past it, accepting that this was the early years of science fiction. But I keep those characters in mind when I am building mine, remembering what made me cringe sometimes from those novels.

    Your commentary has really done a lot to help solidify my character generation process, thank you. It has been a lot of help.

  2. nicolelochoa says:

    I’m pretty selective with what I read, so I can honestly say I haven’t had a character feel unrealistic to me, but I will admit that I have created one in my novel. Now I need to flesh him out a bit.

    Sometimes, I swear, I am doing this all wrong. Every video I watch of Ellen’s or every article I read of hers points out some MAJOR error in my writing, which is good but also disheartening. What I do know, is that when I correct the error, my work becomes so much better. This writing thing is hard work.

    • Bjorn Schievers says:

      Don’t give up. Something I found very helpful recently for fleshing out characters is the Myers-Briggs test, it’s a professional test used in psychology. I posted a link on the facebook page where you just answer questions in your character’s stead and it gives you the personality type, very helpful.

      I also love a book I read recently called Plot VS Character that helps you work a good character arc into your plot. I recommend you look at both.

      And don’t give up, every time you learn you get better. Keep going!

  3. Pam Portland (@TruckingWriter) says:

    As a writer, I tend to have a tendency to create characters that view themselves as overtly flawed, so that they feel like they are not special or unrealistic. I don’t tend to find characters as unrealistic as stories, and I’m often bored with fantasy stories for this reason. I find a chacracter is far more realistic if their surroundings and circumstances are, too.

  4. Renata says:

    I see a lot of unrealistic characters in ya novels. But! As they have been published and I’m not a professional author I don’t dare criticize them. My novel is probably way worse than they are.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes, I also see a ton of unrealistic characters in YA novels, and I read just about everything so long as time allows. I believe this is where character flaw and motivation come in. Also many of these authors are already published.

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