The enjoyment of any story is inextricably linked to how well we identify with the characters, and if any character isn’t quite believable, then the entire story suffers.
Let’s first talk about what makes a character believable. People are usually more than one thing. A person may be an authoritarian at work, but may prefer to be ordered around at home. Other things real people may have are: quirks, sets of phrases they use often, food preferences, odd habits, and more. This is before we get to deeper things like sexuality and triggers. These small things help to make a character not only believable, but compelling.
A character that is, for example, always angry, is less believable than a character that is easily angered. Nobody can be angry all the time because it takes too much effort. The same goes for being happy all the time, or being strong all the time.
While it’s a challenge to create a character that is truly realistic, it’s not necessary to do so. Characters in fiction aren’t supposed to be truly realistic, but they do have to have enough realism for a person to identify with them.
Let’s look at the winner of our NPC of the Year award as an example.
Sarah from Heavy Five, to all outward appearances, seems like a ditz. It’s only when you get to know her that you can get hints that she knows exactly what she’s doing, and that she’s smarter than she appears. That gives her depth. Yes, most of the time she plays up to what people expect of her, but sometimes she overplays it. That’s a complex and compelling character there.
Any writer who has written a lot will tell you that sometimes characters seem to write themselves. Those are the best, but they’re a bad example for planning a character, and sometimes you really do need to plan a character and decide on their quirks, foibles, etc. Not just to make them believable, but to get to know them yourself as the writer.
Doing this is as easy or as difficult as you want to make it.
The easy way is to decide the person’s characteristics up front, and then fill out their backstory based on what could have caused the person to become that way.
The more difficult, but arguably more flexible way, is to decide on the backstory first. I say this is more difficult because it leads to a lot of writing that may never appear in your work; you would be essentially writing a short story of the character’s life and letting that inspire their traits, common phrases, fears, likes and dislikes. This is overkill if all you want to do is a dating sim where the story ends after the money shot, but if you want a story with only a few characters that the player (or reader) has to get to know, it’s invaluable.
This is the kind of thing that has to be done before any dialogue is written for the main story. It’s part of the planning stage, but when you’ve finished the exercise (in whichever way you choose), you should be left with enough knowledge of the character to fill out a Character Matrix.
|MC||Charming, Strong, Clumsy||Gamer Nerd|
|Character 1||Dominant, Powerful, Fragile||Sweet tooth||Compliments||Stupidity|
|Character 2||Submissive, Strong, Empathetic||Oral fixation||Spicy food||Frivolous things|
|Character 3||Caring, Nurturing, Sarcastic||Gym rat||Chocolate||Book smarts|
Of course, a full character matrix will have multiple likes and dislikes, and more columns than this basic example (strengths, weaknesses, triggers, fetishes etc.). Having a detailed character matrix will help to write characters that stay true to themselves, which in turn makes it easier for the players to get to know them and figure out who they are and how to react to them.
Ultimately, whatever method you use to track your characters’ traits and backstory will work, and will help you not only create believable and compelling characters, but can make writing your story easier.