Story is all about character. To some writers, that might be a controversial statement but stay with me here. Whether we’re talking about War and Peace, a funny anecdote you’d tell a friend, or even a sci-fi book set in a far-flung galaxy, all stories must center on characters: how they react to situations and how they change as a result. And if you’re on board with that, then you’ll also agree that you need believable characters to bring your story to life!

In this post, we’ll offer up four simple tips to create lifelike characters that will help make writing your book much smoother.

1. Flesh out their backstory with a character profile

This is going to sound a bit like admin, but I promise that it’s fun as well. In order to create strong characters, you need to incorporate character profiles into your writing process — which means sitting down and answering a long series of questions about each person in your story. By the end of this process, you’ll know everything from superficial details (like their height) to more profound and existential matters (like their opinion on the afterlife).

Why is it important to know these things? Well, how people react to situations largely depends on their personal experience. For instance, if your protagonist has suffered a traumatic childhood, they’d probably be quicker to anger than if they’d grown up in Mayberry as the son of a wise sheriff.

In order to start building your characters’ profiles, you can either work from pre-existing templates or construct your own set of questions to start fleshing out their backstories.

2. Establish their core desire and goal

Once you’ve created the bedrock of each character (with their profile), you now need to decide how their personality factors into your story. After all, there’s no point in fully defining their unique traits only for these qualities to play no part in your plot!

The first thing you can do when working any character into your story is figure out their core desire — their main aim within the story. They don’t need to be the protagonist or antagonist to have a core desire, nor does it have to be particularly major. Sometimes, all a character might want to do is get his wife a gift to show he loves her (see: “Gift of the Magi”).

It’s also important at this stage to understand that someone’s external goal will often be driven by a slightly different internal desire. Rocky Balboa wants to “go the distance” against Apollo Creed — that is his goal — but what he really wants is to prove to himself that he’s more than just a thug and a loser: that is his true desire, which feeds into his goal.

3. Give them a weakness that hinders their success

Just as Bon Jovi promised us, we’re halfway there! Now that your character has a backstory and central desire, you need to make sure that their personality is tested in a believable way.

Too often in stories, characters’ conflicts are purely external: everything is someone else’s fault. Sure, in real life, our personal problems are often out of our control — but in a story, something inside the character needs to be preventing them from achieving their goal. This is why you must give them some sort of weakness or shortcoming.

After all, the thing preventing Ahab from winning the day in Moby-Dick isn’t some malevolent whale; it’s his obsession with revenge. And Frodo Baggins’s biggest hurdle isn’t Sauron or Gollum; it’s his addiction to the power of The Ring.

Your protagonists, in particular, must have a weakness. If not, they’re in danger of becoming a flat character or — even worse — a Mary Sue.

4. Give them a few quirks or obsessions

You know what we said about making sure that your character’s behaviour stems logically from something in their past? Well, while that’s usually the case, there are also exceptions. Characters, like people, sometimes do things simply because they like to, or out of habit. These are what we call quirks, and they’re the final touch in bringing your characters to life.

Maybe your character is a teacher who loves eating Red Vines and drinking cherry cola. This might show that they’re young at heart, but it’s also a detail that humanises them. Does your protagonist listen to writing podcasts on his way to work? Does your secondary protagonist always read the last page of the book first? It’s a weird detail, but wholly believable: the truth always shines through the specifics. By giving your characters a couple of specific quirks or obsessions, you’ll greatly increase the chances that they’ll jump off the page and make your readers fall for them.

Martin Cavannagh is a writer at Reedsy, a network connecting authors and publishers with top editorial, design and marketing talent. Over 3,000 books have been published using Reedsy’s services.