Want to Create Believable Fictional Characters?

Start with a Psychological Profile

by Kerry Kerr McAvoy

Each Friday, my family has a tradition. Two of my adult sons visit for what I call our weekly dinner and a movie. Choosing what we will watch next has become quite the process. My youngest is a cinephile; the show must be well made. We will watch a whole gamut — from older TV series, current streaming options, and full-length cinematic choices — as long as it has excellent reviews.

One Way to Lose Our Audience’s Interest

A few weeks ago, we decided to watch a popular Netflix series, Altered Carbon. I remembered seeing a few episodes right after it was released a couple of years earlier, but lost interest fast. 

My youngest son suggested it as an option, and I thought, Sure, why not? Sometimes I don’t like something because of personal reasons. I hoped time would have improved my opinion.

It didn’t.

After watching six episodes, we’ve decided to abandon the series. This decision led to an interesting conversation about the show’s flaws. The problem wasn’t with the plot; its premise is quite intriguing. And each episode moves at a fast pace and is well-shot. The world-building is intricate and well-thought-out.

Importance of Character Development

Our issue with this series is character development. I honestly don’t like the cast and couldn’t care less if they lived or died.

There are many critical elements to telling an entertaining story. As writers, our tale needs a well-constructed, plausible plot with a gripping conflict in a compelling setting. But no one will read an action-pack story in an fantastical world if it doesn’t include believable characters. We will not keep our audience’s attention if we cannot flesh out our heroes and villains.

So, how can we create believable characters that evoke powerful emotions in our readers?

Construct a Psychological Profile

One way to do this is to construct a psychological profile of each of our principal characters. Remember the way Glenn Close’s incredible characterization of Alex Forrester in Fatal Attraction frightened us? Her rendition of Alex masterfully portrayed primal fears of abandonment, which then fueled the character’s rageful possessiveness.

We never learn if Alex has a psychological condition or even what happened in her life to explain her wildly irrational actions. Her well-developed persona made providing those details unnecessary — that’s the power of complex characterizations.

Over the years as a psychologist, I have formulated many profiles of clients. There’s actually very little that’s different between the makeup of fictional characters from the people who used to walk into my office. Both are facing a challenge or a primary conflict. The clients and main heroes often have tried or are considering various strategies to solve their immediate problem. They have a particular worldview or bias that will either aid or sabotage this effort. And they all want to be loved but have reasons why this is or isn’t going well.

Here’s How to Begin

Of course, first, start with the basic facts about each principal character. What is their name, occupation, and members of their family? Then, it is time to delve deeper into each personality. What are their passions, fears, insecurities, and dreams? And, even though we may never share our antagonist and protagonist’s history, it’s important to know their backstory.

Here are several questions to unlock a greater understanding of our characters’ psychological drives and weaknesses. Your character sketches not only can act as a record to help you keep the important facts straight. You are less likely to forget your character has blue eyes, not green. The answers to these questions will help you develop a road map to your characters’ psychological makeup.

Basic Questions

  1. Basic Facts: Name, Occupation, Residence, Appearance, Education
  2. What is the character’s primary goal in the story?
  3. What is the character’s unconscious drive or goal? How does this hope or fear impede their progress?
  4. Who are they romantically connected to, and what is the nature of those relationships? Are they guarded? Too gullible? Cynical? Etc.
  5. Do they have a psychological condition? How does it manifest? What’s the history? What role does it play in the story?
  6. Who do they trust or distrust others? What do they know and don’t know about the other people in their lives?

Character’s Psychological Strengths and Weaknesses

  1. Level of innate IQ and EQ: There are many types of intelligence, such as common sense, technical know-how in one or more specialty areas, or book smarts. What’s their EQ? Are they charismatic, angry, naïve, or empathetic? Are they a warm or cool personality? Do they able to read the motives of others?
  2. Impulse Control: Is this person disciplined or act spontaneously? Can they delay gratification? How do they justify their actions?
  3. Introspective: Do they have a realistic view of themselves and in what areas? How does knowing this about themselves affect their relationships and activities? What are they anxious or doubtful about in regards to their competencies?
  4. Respect of Others: What do others think about this character? How do they affect those around them? Are they aware of their positive or negative influence?
  5. Biggest Weaknesses and Greatest Strengths: What are their superpower and kryptonite? Do others know this about them? How does it impact their decisions?
  6. Blind Spot: What don’t they know about themselves? How does this affect their life and love?

Well-Developed Characters Make a Story Believable

Maybe you are like me, and can’t wait to jump in to tell your character’s story. Wait until you have taken the time to sketch out these details. You will create a more emotionally compelling plot if you make the effort to know your cast of characters. Then you will sketch believable people that your readers will come to love or hate.

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