Writing a Novel – How to Create Believable Character
How do we breathe authentic, effective emotions into characters when writing a novel?
The emotions of characters inform every aspect of a novel. Emotion is what pulls readers in and
keeps them hanging on every word of every page. The best fiction writers take readers on an
emotional journey, one with emotionally complex characters that readers will be thinking about
long after they’ve finished reading the book. Because of this, novel writing is only for those who
are willing to work hard enough to create complex characters that believably portray complex
Writing a Novel with Authentic Emotion
A typical writer understands feelings – we’ve all had our share of grief, happiness, anxieties,
fear, exhilaration, depression, love, hate, and so on. Much good comes from writing a novel
when we take the feelings and experiences we’ve had and use them to understand and portray
our characters emotions. Using our experiences allows us to write with authenticity.
For example, in my novel Peripheral View, my lead character (Pearl) suffers from epilepsy and
her fear of having a seizure out in public led her to having first anticipatory anxiety and
eventually full-blown panic attacks. I wrote a scene that showed her reacting to the attack by
trying to claw her way out of a bus.
A reviewer of the novel happened to be someone who had epilepsy. She asked if I suffered with
it too. After I told her that I didn’t have epilepsy, her next comments both amazed and pleased
me. She said that my portrayal of Pearl’s seizures and anxiety felt so close to her own
experiences that it made her wonder how I knew the feelings.
This is the deal with that. Peripheral View, although a work of fiction, was inspired by a true
story. Pearl was based on my Aunt Lucille, who suffered from epilepsy and the stigma that came
with that since she was a child. Visiting with me at my home, she had a grand mal seizure.
So, I certainly can imagine what it would feel like for Pearl to have a seizure, particularly in a
public place. And, while I don’t have epilepsy, I once suffered horribly from anticipatory anxiety
and full-blown attacks. I could easily see someone who feared (and anticipated) the worst –
the humiliation and embarrassment – of having a seizure on a public bus, could feel that fear
mounting, feel the helplessness of not being able to control what might happen next, feel it to the
point of seeing her desperately trying to get off the bus – right now! My own experience with
anxiety informed how I should write the scene.
Writing a Novel Using Your Experiences
If you can take your own experiences and transfer the emotions you felt with them into the
scenes of your novel, all the more for making readers believe in the emotional state of your
characters. It’s one of the most effective tools for creating character emotion. Not that the reader
should be thinking, “This must have happened to the writer, it’s so real.” We don’t want the
reader thinking about the writer at all while they’re reading the story. (They can think and
wonder about you all they want after they’ve read the story.) No, we want them to believe in
your character’s emotions.
Writing a Novel is Not a Factual Account
We can use the emotions we’ve had, but that’s not to say that we want to write factual accounts
of our experiences. When writing a novel, it’s important to keep in mind that fiction is not real
life. A factual account of something is flat and is more of a report. Writing a novel isn’t about
reporting on feelings, you need to surround the reader with incidences of how a character came
to have a certain feeling. You are writing about your character’s situation and their emotions,
which must remain true to their character traits. Additionally, don’t use an incident or an
emotion just because you think it will make good reading. If it doesn’t fit with the profile you’ve
created for your character, don’t use it.
Writing a Novel with Believable Character Emotion
Many people can write, but those who write well are the writers who have labored over every
word of their novel. “Labored” is a good way of describing it, I think, because it’s easy to settle
for “good enough” writing when writing a novel and it’s much more difficult to attain great
Great writers don’t settle for the first description that comes to mind – when writing character
emotions, constructing dialogue or setting a scene – they stretch their own imagination to capture
that of their readers.
You can finish reading this article on our website about writing a novel.