On Adding Dimensions To Your Characters

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.


Writing Prompt

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!

Tips For New Writers BEFORE You Begin A Project!

Decide How You Are Going To Punctuate!

Let’s say that somewhere in chapter thirty you find yourself needing to write down the contents of a street sign. How would you do it?


“He thought he was on Parker street, but when he reached the street sign it read ‘Pine Rd’.”


“He thought he was on Parker street, but when he reached the street sign it read Pine Rd.”

This may seem like an immaterial distinction to most beginning writers – neither way really matters after all. What does matter, however, is consistency. If half of your book puts signs in quotations and the other half puts them in italics, that can be very negative for you as an author. You won’t come across as having planned very well, readers are less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if any questions arise in their mind, and/or you’ll have to do a lot of editing in the future to make up for your lack of planning!

Also, be sure to plan your personalized punctuation. There will be instances where you might prefer stylistic choices that are outside of the norm. A personal example from my own work comes from the big debate in the editing community right now about the use of “all right” vs. “alright”. The general consensus now is to use “all right” in any and all cases. I personally, don’t agree with this. What if somebody cut their arm and a character asked, “Are you feeling all right?” In my mind, this seems like a flawed question. How could somebody be all right, as in completely right, if their arm is bleeding? Knowing personal preferences like these beforehand is important. Before you begin a project you should do yourself a favor and ask yourself the tough questions:

  • Do you want to use quotations?
  • Will you indent your paragraphs, as is common, or try to save printing space as in the up and coming style?
  • Will you put dialogue on separate lines?
  • What tense will you be using?

Remember, consistency is key!


Start With Something Other Than A Novel!

It takes time to develop your own unique style. If you start with a novel, you will be discovering it as you go along. This is a problem, not just because of the consistency issues listed above, but because without being extremely familiar with your preferred way of doing things, you might not be able to elegantly convey the messages that you want to convey. I recommend writing several short stories before you begin a novel. Ideally, use your stories as training tools to practice your craft, decide your favorite tenses and discover/fix your personal disadvantages. This is the best time to test the boundaries of what you are capable of in your writing! Another way to test your writing ability beforehand is to write a screenplay. A screenplay, because it is a bigger project, is a great test to give oneself as a starting writer. It will give you as a writer a chance to see what it’s like to work on a larger project, and will force you to plan your work in a very similar way. Whatever you do, beginning a novel can be a daunting task! If you do it without the proper preparation, you might find yourself unable to finish or left holding a 30,000 word book!


Know Your General Point Before Word One!

It’s okay if you prefer to write without knowing your destination. While I personally thrive with 10+ pages of planning, not everybody does. What is not okay is meandering. In my work with new fiction I’ve come across stories about characters who have no life goals, who wonder aimlessly from place to place, simply because their authors didn’t know what to do with them. Just having a message or, at least, a basic character arc in mind, can help drive your plot forward. By a message, I don’t necessarily mean a moral.

Let’s say you decide to write your book about a poker player in the 70’s – a real Doyle Brunson type, not unaccustomed to having his winnings taken from him at gun point in back-alleys. Your message can be something simple like “Poker players lead rough lives.” This allows you, the author, to know the confines of the story. If your character is a gambler on page one, he needs to be a gambler on page one-hundred and one. This message also prevents you from clearing all his problems away too early.

What happens if you don’t have a message or through-line. Let’s imagine a story about a chronic gambler whose life is really hard until, about half way through the novel, he meets a woman who helps him get over his addiction. Throughout the rest of the book, the ex-player helps other people get over their addictions… what’s the message here? That a good relationship can cure addiction? Not really. If it were, what was the point of the second half of the book? That curing gambling is a good thing? If that's it, it's a really weak message! Do you see how it falls flat? The book has become a series of events devoid of meaning. There must always be something that connects the events in a meaningful way! Think about a good book that may, on the surface, be all over the place. A good example is Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. Billy Pilgrim jumps through from scene to scene throughout the book. The events don’t unfold chronologically. Yet, somehow it works. What holds the book together? It’s the message about the Dresden Bombing, and about war in general: when someone witnesses a great tragedy, sometimes they need an escape in order to keep their sanity.

Before you begin a novel, at least have a general idea of what you’re trying to say! Here’s the sad truth: You will create messages whether you want to or not! The most powerful ones, however, are intentional.


Create A Schedule!

Start small. 300 words a day is more than doable as an initial goal. Depending on how early you have to wake up, consider doing it first thing in the morning before you start your daily ritual. If you can only set aside an hour a day, you might be surprised at how much you’ll actually get done during that time. Not everybody has time to write 2000 words a day like Stephen King, but a schedule will force you to be honest with yourself about what kind of time you DO have to write. The most common reason I hear for not setting aside specific time to work on your book is “I don’t even have time to make a schedule!” Okay. If that’s really, honestly true, you certainly don’t have enough time to write a novel.


Familiarize Yourself With Similar Material!

If you’re planning on writing a book about aliens invading the US, you should read and watch any similar material you can get your hands on. The point is not to steal their work, but to see if their stories can fuel your own creative efforts. In these cases, don’t read/watch for pleasure. Instead, think about plot holes, what made the dialogue good or bad and the work’s strengths and weaknesses. Let your mind run away with possibilities. Ideally, you’ll find yourself thinking, “That’s good, but what if I did this…” Even if you don’t immediately find anything useful, seeing how other authors wrapped up dilemmas you might face may subconsciously help you with your future problems. Before I start a project, I won’t touch a book that I don’t believe will be useful, either because it’s written in a similar style to my future novel, or because it contains a certain element that I want to incorporate in my own work. Not only is this process immensely helpful, but it allows you to make sure that what you’re writing hasn’t been written before!

Note: Lots of people prefer to write by the seat of their pants. They believe that, because they have no idea how their project is going to turn out, that they can’t do any research beforehand. I completely disagree with this philosophy. If all you know is that you want to write something about a guy who lives in Tennessee, then you know enough to start!


Writing Prompt

Write 500-700 words on the general point of a novel you are planning on writing. I won't edit it, but I'll give you advice on whether the idea has what it takes, what works to look at, and how to maximize your ideas effectiveness!