Flat characters may be the number one problem in all of writing! Both novice writers and professionals often struggle to give their characters depth. Sadly, most of the time they fail. The literary world is filled with goody-two-shoes Ken and Barbie types who fight against evil forces like corruption and greed, only to achieve victory at the very end and reflect on how they’ve changed as people. It’s gotten old. In this post, I’m going to talk a bit about what you can do to set your characters apart from the others so you can strengthen your novel and prepare it for the eyes of an agent or a publisher.
Don’t Go For The Easy Explanation
Let’s say your main character has devoted her life to stopping cancer through any means necessary. Why? An easy answer would be that her father, or some other member of the family, died of cancer when she was growing up. It’s perfectly plausible, but the motivation is a little too perfect, and it puts our character on the side of right and good immediately. Now let’s say that her father, instead of dying of cancer, was sent to federal prison for 20 years because he illegally dumped toxic waste into river water, causing over a thousand people to get cancer… Knowing even this much about her motivations immediately adds multiple facets to her personality. Why is she doing it? Maybe she wants to redeem the family name (honor). Maybe she hates her father? Again, these are all the easy explanations. What if instead, she has an extremely complicated relationship with her father? What if he was extremely loving as she was growing up, and so she refused to believe the allegations until he himself confessed? Maybe even now she views him simply as a good man who did a bad thing. Not taking the easy answer not only adds depth to a character, but it also opens up areas for plot expansion. For instance, what would happen if her father were released from prison? Would she want to see him? Perhaps this story is ultimately about repairing an imperfect relationship and how sometimes, even when those we love let us down, we have to forgive.
On a separate note, I’m a strong believer in character-based plot because that’s how the events in our lives happen… and if our fiction is to contain the ring of truth, why shouldn’t we mimic life?
Cut Out Side-Stories
If you think this doesn’t sound like a character note, you’d be wrong. Time and time again, I’ve witnessed perfectly good books being ruined by subplots. Oftentimes, side-plots are added because the author didn’t do enough planning when constructing their key story. When an author finishes his book at 40,000 words, there’s a strong temptation to add fluff. In a detective story, it happens when the bad guys distract the main character by stealing his car. He goes on a 10,000 word quest to get it back before turning his attention back to the grisly murder on 13th street. Not only does this kind of thing make the plot weaker, it makes the characters weaker. Think about it. For the entire duration of the 10,000 word subplot, the character’s motivations for getting involved in his investigation mean absolutely nothing. His inner turmoil means nothing. The influence of his dark past means nothing. Think of character depth like the speed on your speedometer. If you start at zero miles an hour, and with every chapter you go five mph faster, it adds up – but if at any point you come to a complete stop, you have to start all over again. Subplots, especially when they feel like subplots, are hard to recover from. Make sure you have as few as possible.
Make Your Villains Human
Whenever you write an antagonist, I want you to remember that villains are people too. It’s totally fine if your villain wants to control the world. It’s even fine if he goes around kicking puppies and committing other heinous acts – but you need to show how he got that way. What if he wants to control the world because he’s too tired of senseless violence and he doesn’t think that the world is smart enough to control itself? This is the basic idea behind Ozymandias from Watchmen. Having his evil plan be, ultimately, for the good of humanity, adds a level of depth that most villains don’t have. As with anything, don’t choose the easy explanation as to your antagonist’s nature. Being abused as a child won’t set him apart – it’s too generic and too obvious. Perhaps instead, your villain had a perfectly normal childhood, but was simply far smarter than his parents and judged them for their stupid behavior. Always strive to break the norm! Never settle for a character that “works.” Dig deeper.
Don’t Force Your Characters To Push The Plot Forward
This is an extremely common mistake. What’s more, it’s something writers refuse to listen to. “But she needs to be at the bus terminal! Why does it matter how he gets there?” If your character isn’t the type to walk around at three in the morning, then she shouldn’t be walking around at three in the morning. It’s that simple. To a lot of writers, I’m sure this sound confining – and it might be – but it’s also absolutely necessary. In good fiction, a character only does what he/she would do. Let’s say you’re writing about computer programmers, and for some reason, it’s really important to get a certain piece of information out. The obvious way would be to have two computer programmers talk about it… but if you do that, you fall into a trap. The problem doesn’t lie with the obvious exposition, it lies in the fact that computer programmers don’t sit around talking about the differences between object-oriented programming languages and procedural programming languages. They know the difference. NEVER EVER EVER use your characters as a plot device. If you can’t think of a way to do something without hurting the integrity of your characters, don’t do it. If you hold to this rule, you might be surprised by how authentic your fiction becomes, and by how expertly you can push the plot forward when you allow your skills to develop instead of taking the easy way out.
Remember That Your Characters Existed Before You Wrote Them
Let’s perform an experiment. Pick somebody you know at random. Anybody. Do they have a past? Do they have friends? Well, of course they do! Why is it then that characters often pop into existence on the page? In most fiction, it is rare for a character to have more than a single friend. Oftentimes, they never talk about their childhood or even their parents – it’s as if they never existed! It’s absurd. If your character falls in love, it can add a whole new level of realism if she compares her new lover to her extremely passive ex-boyfriend who only stayed with her because he was used to her, not because he loved her. Just because we’ve never seen these people doesn’t mean they don’t exist! These invisible people are constantly pulling at your characters, and they are ESPECIALLY important in the beginning of the story when you’re setting the stage. Be careful though! This doesn’t mean you should write a preponderance of backstory. Sometimes the best way to get these connections out is through the way your character behaves. If she constantly pushes away people in her life, maybe that’s a sign that she was hurt in the past. Subtext is key!
Give Your Characters Flaws
Writing about human nature can be uncomfortable, but it’s truthful. The literary world is full of righteous and wonderful personalities that make awful characters. The truth is, humanity isn’t perfect. Even the best of us have flaws. Don’t be afraid to allow your characters to make mistakes. Sometimes people act based on misinformation. Sometimes, people just have bad days and say things they don’t mean. Don’t be so worried about people disliking your character that you don’t allow her to be human. Personally, none of my favorite characters are without flaws. Cordelia in King Lear is unable to play the game of politics. Rhoda in one of my favorite films, Another Earth, is an ex-convict who is emotionally distant, and is unable to forgive herself for a DUI that resulted in the death of two people. Sometimes the most beautiful thing about a character is their flaws. People cover up imperfections in real life, but the best fiction should be naked.
Write a 500-1000 word story on an extremely flawed character. Make sure he or she has at least one friend! As always, if you send it to me via the contact page on the website, I'll edit it for free!