Writing Believable Characters – The past and future self

Many people struggle to write believable characters. It’s a difficult skill to master and, if I’m honest, I don’t think many writers have totally grasped it, even those who write best-sellers. Hopefully, through this series, I’ll be able to help a bit with how you create and design your characters.

The most important thing to keep in mind when writing a character is what purpose do you want them to fulfil? I’m not talking about how The Boy in The Road represents hope of how every character in Of Mice and Men represents The American Dream, I’m just talking about what journey your character is going on.

Let’s use an easy example. Frodo from The Lord of The Rings. His goal is to destroy the One Ring in Mt. Doom. That is where he is going, so he dresses and prepares himself the only way he really knows, which is a result of his past. He’s led a comfortable life but one that, by Hobbit standards, is willfully adventurous in a very romanticised way. As a result, when he learns how powerful the One Ring is and how important his journey is he tries to get out of it.

From this information you start to get an idea of how Frodo will look and act. He doesn’t take a weapon with him because he’s never needed to fight. He’s travelling with his friend and so is relaxed. He’s got his rucksack with the pots and pans on and, frankly, he pervades an air of naivety for a good while, which makes sense when you consider his past.

That’s what you have to do. If your character’s parents used to fight all the time then it makes sense to make them slow to trust and and wary of relationships. If their dream is to become a writer (yes, I am going for the low-hanging fruit with that one) then you have to reflect that. Make their room into something resembling a library. Have them, at points, prattle on about something they read or wrote. Don’t just have them do the generic things you want them to because all that results in is a character that drifts through a story that isn’t theirs.

I’ll talk about the process of designing my most recent protagonist. He wants to create a band where he is the lead guitarist. He was homeless for a year after his parents died. Therein you have the basics of his future and past. To add some spice to the character I have made him obsessed with dead rockstars.

As a result of all of this he is moody and untrusting. He constantly has his iPod with him and his guitar and amp are the most prominent things in his room. He wears t-shirts advertising bands like Nirvana. He doesn’t take work seriously unless it is him writing music. Finally, like all rockstars, which is something he obviously aspires to be, he likes partying a little too much to the point where it has a negative effect on him and those around him.

Once you know where you character is going you can build them up around that. The how, why and when they get, or don’t get, what they want is completely up to you but isn’t nearly as important as how it builds them as people.



  1. Tiegan · January 2, 2016

    Very useful! Thanks 🙂


  2. beenculverted · January 2, 2016

    I don’t give enough attention to the pasts of characters. It’s the past that builds us, how we were raised, etc, and that’s something I’ll have to pay more attention to.
    I saw it written somewhere that a Full Character has Two Sides. Frodo turns on Sam when they get near Mordor; in Of Mice and Men, Lenny was innocent and gentle but had the capacity to murder, and George, so full of love and sacrifice for Lenny, kills Lenny to free himself.

    Liked by 1 person

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