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.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #8: Writing Believable Antagonists


Antagonists are great! They’re evil, quirky, strange people who do things that we normal people would never dream of doing. Unfortunately, antagonists are often not given enough character development to truly be able to shine.

So today we’re going to talk about how to improve your antagonist and the role he or she plays in your novel. I know that I’ve touched on the antagonist a few times already, but I wanted to give this important character the space he deserves in this course.

Note that not all novels have a human (or sentient) antagonist. If your book doesn’t have one, don’t fret! It’s not a requirement. Though most books have at least some human element to their antagonistic force, so you may still pick up some helpful hints.

Avoid Bad for Bad’s Sake

The most common mistake when writing an antagonist is creating a character who is bad just for the sake of being bad. He loves to rub his hands together and laugh maniacally and think about drowning puppies and stealing candy from babies.

This type of person does not exist in reality. Even serial killers, rapists, and mass murderers are rarely (if ever) described as all-around bad people.  Even most crappy horror movies give the antagonist at least some sort of motivation.

People are bad for a reason. They have a motivation to do the evil things they do, which leads us to:

Antagonists Must Have Tangible Goals

The antagonist, just like the protagonist, has something that he or she wants to achieve. They have a goal. This goal needs to be tangible, identifiable. If the reader doesn’t know what the goal is right away, they at least need to get the impression that there is one.

The goal also needs to make sense!

Taking over the world and murdering everyone is a mostly illogical goal. What would someone do with a world full of dead people? Yet taking over the world could be turned into a realistic goal if it would allow the antagonist to solve some personal issue, such as needing the government’s secret technology in order to build a time machine to go back in time to save his sister.

Yes, even antagonists need to have a goal that is personal. Achieving their goal must relieve some source of pain or hardship in their lives. Without that, their goals will seem laughable.

Note that their source of pain or hardship could be entirely based on their own perception. It doesn’t have to make sense to normal people. However I would avoid using “insanity” as a cop out for the antagonist’s behavior.

Antagonists Believe They Are Right

Just like the protagonist believes they are right, the antagonist believes that they are right too. This is a very important fact that can be easy to lose sight of. Many amateur novels have an antagonist who practically walks around going, “Oh gee do I love being evil!”

This is not how people think. When people do bad things, they believe that (for some reason) the behavior is justified.

For example, an abusive parent isn’t abusing their kid because they just like being evil. Most individuals who act aggressively towards anyone (friend, family, or foe) are able to justify it: “He deserved it!” “He was asking for it!” “My dad beat me and I turned out okay!” “It builds characters!”

Some antagonists may even believe that what they are doing is actively good. For example, cleansing the world of a certain type of person, teaching someone “bad” a lesson, or righting some sort of wrong for which they were the victim.

The most important thing to remember is that if an antagonist doesn’t believe what they’re doing is right (in whatever twisted, messed up way), you’re going to have a tough time making them seem realistic to the reader.

Antagonists Are Defeated by Their Flaws

For a truly satisfying climax, the antagonist should lose because of a character flaw. Just like with protagonists, this flaw could take an infinite number of forms. Antagonists could be overly arrogant and make careless mistakes that get them caught. They could underestimate the protagonist and end up getting defeated in a way they never imagined. They could get so wrapped up in their ritualistic behavior that they don’t clear out of a crime scene in time. Or they could have difficulty controlling their anger to the point that they snap in public.

Whatever their flaw, it should be made as apparent as possible prior to the climax. This will ensure that when they are defeated, it seems logical, possible, and not like an easy way to simply let the protagonist win.

Cut the Bumbling Henchmen

Unless you’re taking the idea in a wildly new direction, I suggest avoiding giving your antagonist bumbling henchmen. Sure their sidekicks aren’t going to be as smart or as powerful as they are, but they shouldn’t be complete and utter baffoons.

In general, somebody else’s blatant stupidity does not make for a very interesting way of defeating them.

All characters of any significance (and henchmen certainly qualify if they become an obstacle for the protagonist) should undergo enough character development to not have to fall back on being stupid in order to fail.

What About Monsters?

If monsters are sentient enough to have a tangible goal, then they should have one. If they can talk, then they definitely need to have one.

The goal could be eating the protagonist or stealing their soul or appeasing the demon fleas infested in their fur, but they need to have some reason to be evil (just like the human antagonists).

Homework: Believable Antagonist Worksheet

To get you really thinking about how to improve your antagonist, I’ve created a worksheet of questions that will challenge you to think of your antagonist in a different way. You could easily write hundreds of words for each question if you properly develop your antagonist. So sit down in a nice quiet spot and get working!

The questions:

  • What is your antagonist’s goal? What is he or she trying to achieve?
  • Why does your antagonist feel that his goal is justified?
  • Does he ever not feel that the goal is justified? Does he ever feel guilty or remorseful? If so, what prompts him to continue pursuing his goal?
  • If the antagonist could snap his fingers and make the world exactly as he wants it, what would that world be like?
  • If your antagonist could travel back in time and change something about his past, what would it be? (Don’t say “nothing.” That’s a cop out and you know it!)
  • What is your antagonist’s flaw and how will it ultimately cause him to be defeated?
  • What is your antagonist’s relationship like with his henchmen/sidekick/etc.?
  • What does your antagonist like to do for fun? (Don’t say “kill people” or “make the protagonist suffer.” Really think about the question. Everyone has non-evil things they enjoy.)
  • What are some positive traits of your antagonist? Is he a great listener? Did she raise happy, healthy children? Did the wolfman once save someone’s life?

If you answer these questions before editing or rewriting your novel, you will be able to spot areas that are lacking in depth and create a more complex and interesting antagonist.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.