Real People = Believable Characters

For me, writing about characters is sort of like the president going to a rock concert. I have no idea why, but it sounds awesome. And it kinda makes you think I’m a rock star...or the president.

Okay, let me start by telling you who some of my favorite characters in YA are:

Kiri from Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith
Saba from Blood Red Road by Moira Young
Travis and Harper from Something Like Normal by Trish Doller
All of John Green's characters
Kirra from Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi
St. Clair from Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Danny from When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney
Bella from Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (shut up).

I love all the characters of Harry Potter. Luna Lovegood is one of my favorite characters of all-time and I’m going to get her face tattooed onto my face, but for the sake of this blog post, I’d like to mention Draco Malfoy.

There is something that all of these characters have in common: they’re real. That’s all that matters to me when it comes to characters. Are they real? And more importantly, are they real to anyone but the writer?

See, too often writers try to come up with unique, original characters that will stand out from the “girl with lip ring” or “boy with tattoo” peeps we see in YA. And in an effort to make these new characters memorable, the writer makes them so unrealistic that no one believes in them.

I need to relate to characters on some level, but not all. If a character lives on a spaceship, then I can’t relate to a lot of the things they’re going through. But I can and should be able to relate to how those characters deal with other people, their emotions, and their choices.

Think of those really awesome fallen angel, bad boy characters that show up in YA from time to time. Like, what am I supposed to do with that?! I’m not a fallen angel and I’m not a bad boy, so I better freaking be able to relate to something else with those dudes! Nope, nothing. They don’t act like angels. They don’t act like teenage boys. They just act like morons. And what’s worse? The other characters in the book treat their unrealistic behavior like it’s legit. And that makes me not believe in them either. And that is today’s lesson on writing a terrible book.

So how do we write characters that are believable?

You get out of your imagination and make some new friends. You can’t watch Teen Wolf to see how teenagers really behave. You can’t go to the mall and scope out the mall rats. You have to actually spend quality time with real teenagers. And here’s the trick: you can’t be an observer, you have to interact.

If you watch from a distance, you will do nothing but make assumptions. And we all know that assumptions are the mother of all under-filled burritos.

You can definitely gain some understanding from observing, but you won’t get into the qualities that make a character three dimensional.

Here’s a scenario:

Let’s say Sally wants to write about a teenage character that lives in foster care, so Sally volunteers with a non-profit group that is going to bring Christmas presents to teenagers in foster care.

Let’s say Sally goes with another good-hearted soul to drop off some Christmas presents at the teenager’s house and when Sally arrives she is invited in for milk and cookies by the foster parents.

Sally is thrilled because her plan is working. She’s going to get to see a real, live “at-risk” teen in action! What will they say? What will they do?! Her “troubled teen” character is going to be spot on realistic now! Watch out, Amazon…

Sally is led to a chair near the fireplace and given her milk and cookies. She waits in anticipation for the wild and rebellious teen to stomp in and plop down on the couch while her fellow do-gooder places the gifts under the tree.

In walks a blonde-haired teenage girl. She’s wearing a stunning black dress that makes her perfectly straight white teeth glow, and her eyes are so blue that you want to dive in.

She greets Sally like a mature adult, makes polite conversation and thanks her for the gift. She is respectful to her foster parents, well-mannered and has great conversation skills. She tells Sally all about how well she does in school and how much she loves playing the flute. She hopes to attend the local university and become a social worker so she can give back and make a difference.

Sally is quite surprised, but she is taking mental notes. She’s SO glad she did this, because she thought teenagers in foster care were rebellious little mofos that mouthed off and dressed like whores. She would have gotten this character all wrong! Good thing she’s being so observant!

The time comes to leave and blondie walks Sally to the door, thanks her again, and Sally leaves.

Sally spent a whole twenty minutes getting to know Blondie.

She rushes home to her computer and starts writing! She writes and writes and writes. She’s got a realistic character that everyone is going to fall in love with! The agents are going to be lined up at her door!

The only problem is that Sally still has no idea how a teenager in foster care behaves because she only saw a teenager pretending. The girl’s foster parents told her to be sweet and then they would let her have the Christmas gifts. So that’s what she did.

What Sally didn’t see is blondie go to her room after she left, slam the door, and cut her arm repeatedly. Sally didn’t get to hear about Christmas being the worst time of year for Blondie because that’s the only time she saw Daddy, and that’s when Daddy molested her and that’s why he is in prison now. And her momma is a drunk living with a different guy every week. Sally didn’t get to hear about her pain, her suffering, her determination to move forward, her failures, her depression, her anger, her confusion, her questions, her motivations, and her goals. Sally didn’t get a glimpse of what it feels like for Blondie to be alone. Sally doesn’t know the embarrassment Blondie endures when the bitch squad at school gossips about her. Sally has no idea how close Blondie has come to swallowing the entire bottle of those anxiety pills they make her take.

Sally just observed something that wasn’t even real, and made assumptions that aren’t anywhere close to accurate.

The character Sally writes won’t be believable. Her readers will put her book down and watch TV. 

Get to know people. Really get to know them. The more you do this, the more real your characters will be to your readers. 

Believable characters are real people.


What a really thought-provoking post, Aaron. I've had the great fortune of interacting with many young people at the animal shelter where I work. I've come to know their ambitions, their humor and their compassion. My take-away is that despite the change in fashions, technology and music, I always find something that reminds me of me as a young person. The need to make a difference, be loved, contribute to a better world. To be heard and understood. I also love to read comments and criticisms of middle grade and young adult books by young people on sites like Goodreads. One such group is YA Book Club.

Really interesting, Aaron, and valid points on debunking assumptions by getting to know real people.... I'll be thinking about this today while I write. And I LOVED St. Clair in Anna and the French Kiss. Get that face tattoo please. Stat.

Great advice, Aaron! All good characters have depth--just like real people. (and Luna is one of my favorite characters from HP, too.)

Great post, Aaron! And Kirra, really? You know she's a real person, right? I'll tell her you like her. But seriously, thanks. Also, I'm totally getting a Travis (SLN) tattoo on my face.

Right there with you on Luna, St. Clair, and Saba.

You lost me at Teen Wolf. Really? I can't watch Teen Wolf for REAL teenagers? C'mon man. Styles! STYLES!

Sigh. You're right.

I loved your example with Blondie. You had me sold on the sweet version, then sucker-punched me with her reality.

Nice! You need to add the following to your list: ALL of Melina Marchetta's characters. Especially read Saving Francesca asap. A side note: I think your kids would be super confused if you tattooed Luna's face over yours. Well I guess you would have a dysfunctional kid example to write about then though, brilliant. DO it!

All great characters have something going on below the surface, and getting to it is really the point. I loved most of the characters on the list, and I hope you some day write a character manifesto in defense of poor Bella Swan.

Mmm, yes, I loved Kirra, too. She was... complicated. As clearly problematic as she was to Perry and Aria's relationship and the future of the Tides, she felt real to me, and therefore possible to empathize with, because she wasn't a moustache-twirling antagonist. She had vulnerabilities that drove her, and that made her interesting.

I love this. The example you give about "Sally" is something I see in books way too often. I ran programs for children/teens in a homeless shelter/community center for 5 years. I've watched what these kids go through, heard the stories from their past, and have seen drug addiction, gang life, teen pregnancy, abuse, depression, etc. first hand. Sometimes authors make it look so easy or write situations in a way that is almost offensive to someone that has had a kid show up at their door in the middle of the night because they are scared to go home. It is obvious when an author doesn't really know the reality of issues like this. But when they do it is absolutely amazing and my heart aches with these characters!

I also love that you emphasize the importance of interacting rather than observing! Dialogue is so vital to a believable character. Sometimes I'll read something and think.... no one would say that!

Oh and loved this. hahaha--- "assumptions are the mother of all under-filled burritos."

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