My accountability group talked a bit before in our How I Write series in the posts on Building Character, but I wanted to take a closer look at some ways to create character depth, to make them unique, not just in your book, but in the market place.
WHY do we want to read about these characters, spend time with them and even revisit some of them? And WHY will we identify with them and CARE about their successes and failures? And, what can writers do when building characters so that they come alive on the page for readers?
1. Not just Faults, but Contradictions
Perfect characters are BORING! But in addition to giving them some quirks and character flaws, go farther. Give them contradictory details. Make the bad guy have a soft spot for small helpless fuzzy things. Too easy? Make your main character hold a strong opinion about something and then act in a hypocritical fashion.
2. Go Beyond Stereotypes & Archetypes
Yes, they exist because they’re familiar and recognizable. Are they interesting? Where’s the surprise? Where’s the mystery? Most people don’t like cardboard pizza. They don’t like cardboard characters either.
3. Go Beyond GMC
Deb Dixon‘s idea of Goal, Motivation and Conflict works well at the larger scale. But how many authors drill down with it to the smaller scale? How do those three elements color even their smallest actions and decisions? Weave it in, so it’s an integral part of the story fabric.
4. Vocations & Avocations
So your character has a job or a hobby. That’s nice. Go deeper. How does that influence their vocabulary, their insights, their relationship with others, their smaller actions and decisions? Do they live and breathe it? Or is it just another gloss coat? How does this profession or passion affect the plot? WHY did they/you make this choice? If you can swap it out easily, consequently you haven’t gone deep enough.
5. Use Varying Degrees of Focus and Distance
You know how some photographs are more interesting because not EVERYTHING is sharp and competing for your attention? Think of the difference between your mental definitions of “snap shot” and “photograph”. Good photos tell stories too. They also leave a bit of mystery and interpretation to the viewer. Writers can do similar things. By focusing on different aspects of your character at different times in the book, you can draw the reader in and let them explore what makes your characters tick. Then, only when you absolutely need to, reveal what you’ve hinted at in the shadows and the murky background to bring the whole picture into sharp focus when it will mean the most to the reader.
6. Go Big or Go Home
Don’t settle for making average characters do ordinary things. What can you do to pump them up and make it so the reader believes they may not overcome the high stakes they’re up against? What about your characters keeps the reader’s hope burning that they WILL succeed? This is where many characters who are deemed Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) fail the reader. The reader therefore has lost all hope for this character and may actually be rooting against them.
7. Dig Deep, Put Yourself In There
This is probably the hardest one for me to do personally. It doesn’t have to be the biggest, most traumatic event in your life, but we all share common experiences: happiness, sorrow, regret, hope, frustration, anger. Find ways to channel situations you know into your writing. The story details don’t have to be autobiographical, but use the feelings, both emotional and physical to connect your characters to your reader. For me, this is “write what you know” writ large!
Have I missed anything? What are some of the things that make you fall in love with a character or wish you could know them in real life? What makes YOU care about a fictional person’s success or failure?
And if you’d like to read about what the rest of my group suggests for ways to deepen characters, you can find their blogs here: