CharactersStory CraftTV Drama Pilot

Story Craft – How to Create Believable Characters

In virtually all story forms, character is Queen! Most folks are looking for their entry into a story through a specific character. They’re looking for the part of the character that feels the most relatable to them. To what they’re experiencing in their life. To what they want to be reminded of, what they want to forget or what they aspire to achieve. Characters are the escape hatch for our lives.

TV Dramas that Deliver on the Character Promise 

In every one of my favorite TV dramas from the past few years its been the characters that have captivated me and made me want to tune in to root for them, cry with them or even cuss them out. (yes, I’m that kind of TV watcher. I yell at the TV. I know I’m not alone, right!)

Anywho, some of the TV dramas that really deliver on the character promise of believability and relate-ability are found in shows like: This is Us, Game of Thrones, The Crown, How to Get Away with Murder, Mad Men, Insecure, Grey’s Anatomy, Empire, Fleabag, Glow, Ozark, Hunters, Homeland, Goliath, The Knick and Truth Be Told just to name a few.

Great TV Drama writing equals great characters.

Each of these dramas have several memorable and relatable characters that tug at our memory once the episode is over and we can’t wait to dive into the next part of the story. So, we watch it every week or we binge all 13 episodes in a single sitting!

So what does the writer use to create believable characters? I believe writers should do everything listed below with #8 being perhaps the most important.

8 Tips to Help You Create Believable Characters

    1. Create multi-dimensional characters – avoid stereotypes but use archetypes. (Insecure nails this one.)
    2. Employ ambiguity – if “X” is true, what’s the opposite in their world? Show it and tell it. (Hunter’s does a terrific job with this)
    3. Base a character on someone you know. (Fleabag is inspired by the writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s own story that started as a one woman play)
    4. Understand and write into the the character flaw, redeeming qualities and main wound. (Homeland hits this out of the park!)
    5. Identify internal and external challenges. These could be fears or real tangible obstacles. (Watch Ozark and you’ll see this done masterfully)
    6. Only do enough backstory work that will support the character/story you’re writing. No need to know their favorite color if its not going to matter in the story!
    7. Figure out what they want! What’s the seemingly unreachable goal the character desires. (Game of Thrones all day baby!)
    8. Do a character sketch and then walk away from the page. Ask “What If” questions that engage your intuition and imagination. The more questions you ask to find out “who the character is”, the quicker you’ll start to generate the most authentic and necessary aspects of the character for the story you’re writing.

Great characters generate emotional stickiness.

Ultimately, all of the TV Dramas I mentioned above, generate emotional stickiness through the characters. No one really watches a TV show for the “situation” or the “location”. Yes “The Knick” takes place in 1900 New York and its an interesting peek into the evolution of modern medicine, but we actually show up to reconnect to the characters we grow to love or even hate.

Bonus tip: Do a character breakdown test. To avoid writing yourself into a rut, ask the following questions of each major character you create:

    1. What role does this character play in the story and why? (protagonist, antagonist, supporting, foil etc.)
    2. What do they want? (no matter the character role, every character has a want)
    3. Why do they HAVE to achieve their goal? (avoid indifference like the plague)
    4. What’s in their way? Why do they think they can’t do it?
    5. What happens that makes them need to achieve their goal?
    6. What will happen if they don’t achieve their goal?

I hope this helps you to think differently about the why, how and what when you’re creating characters, because that’s the work of the writer. Answer those questions with as much depth as you can and hook the audience into the world you create, through believable relatable characters!

Let me know if this was helpful. Don’t be stingy. Drop a comment below!


Denise Joy LOVEs all things drama TV. I'm a binge-watching-deconstructing-story-maven. I've been a college professor and professional writer for 20 years, but I grew up in “O” town. No. Not Oakland, Omaha. Growing up in middle America was an idyllic experience. I grew up on the taste of welfare...powdered milk and government cheese. Along with my siblings I lived in 13 different homes from the time I was born until I was 17. The first being a low income projects nicknamed “Little Vietnam”, so don’t come for me! Learning how to outrun the eviction notice cultivated my love of storytelling from a young age. At 9 I published my fist poem and at 13 I wrote and shot my first movie, “The Chase” with my neighborhood crew at Tommy Rose Gardens Projects. People say I'm a master at reinvention. Just another byproduct of lessons learned from my vagabond/gypsy like upbringing. And for those of you that wonder if I’m spiritual, ratchet, bougie, professional or ghetto…please note, I’m mixed.