One Trick to Creating Believable Characters

building-characterOne of the coolest things about good fiction (to me, anyway, but keep in mind that I’m a pretty big nerd), is that there’s always an element of truth to it. Even the most outlandish stories— for them to be good — have to be plausible when reading them. Take Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. You have to think “yes, reincarnation could definitely happen and it’s happening to this girl.” Or The Goldfinch, where the entire premise rests on the idea that a little boy in a daze of confusion after a museum bombing where his mother died would decide on a whim to nick a famous and expensive painting.

The same if true not just for plot, but for characters. You have to create three-dimensional people from thin air — they can’t just be The Evil Guy or the The Perennial Nice Girl, because then they’re not believable as real people. And one of the many ways to achieve that is to steal tiny quirks or personality traits from people who really exist.

All of the characters in BEFORE I GO are completely made-up people, but consciously (and sometimes sub-consciously), little traits or quirks from people in my real life slipped into the story.

Here are a few examples:

There’s a specific way my mom looks at her watch, and when my brother read the book, he texted me and said that it was exactly the way Daisy’s mom looks at her watch. He could picture it perfectly, and I didn’t even notice that detail!

Jack, my protagonist’s husband, has the annoying ability to fall asleep right when his head hits the pillow — much like my dear husband, Fred.

And a few bits of Pamela, a reviled co-teacher of Daisy’s best friend Kayleigh, I stole from my best friend Brooke, who has shared a lot of her teaching profession passions with me over the years.

So, yes, this is all to say that if you’re ever at a dinner party with me, the strange way you hold your fork or the endearing phrase you repeat ad nauseam could absolutely end up in a future book of mine. Watch your back!

Do you ever crib real-life characteristics for your fictional characters? Tell me some of your favorites below.

Author: Colleen Oakley

Colleen Oakley is the author of BEFORE I GO (Simon & Schuster/Gallery, Jan. 2015), a love story. A former editor for Marie Claire and Women's Health & Fitness, she's now an Atlanta-based freelance writer. Find out more at

3 Replies to “One Trick to Creating Believable Characters”

  1. I’m always stealing. I just asked a good friend if I could steal the meet-cute story of how she met her hubby. I’m shameless. 🙂

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