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!

How To Self-Edit

I encourage everyone to self-edit, and that surprised a lot of people. There’s an idea that, if people edit their own work, they won’t actually need an editor… I don’t believe that one bit. Everyone needs a fresh, ideally professional, set of eyes. Sometimes, no matter how much writer’s edit, they see what they think they wrote, not what they actually wrote. Editors don’t. As much as I believe in editors however, even if you have all the money in the world and can afford to go through as many as three editors, I STILL think you should be doing self-editing! If you don’t edit what you can, an editor will probably be able to help you – but why should they? When they’re editing what you could fix yourself, too much of their time is spent on typos, grammatically incorrect sentences and other small issues to pay as much attention to other areas! What’s more, if upon completion you send off an unedited manuscript to publishers, I can pretty much guarantee that they won’t endorse it. When there are thousands of possible clients sending them books that are practically ready to print, why would they take a chance on a project that would require them to spend more time and money to get it prepared? It doesn’t matter how good it is. Now that you see why self-editing can be so important, here are a couple of things that you can do before you send your manuscript off to an editor, agent or publisher.


Switch Passive Voice To Active Voice

This is a really common piece of advice, but it directly applies to immediate fixes you should be making during the editing process. Most examples of the passive voice in writing books are extremely obvious (“The ball was picked up and thrown by Tom” et cetera…), but when most people accidentally touch on the passive voice, it is far less extreme. When you come across sentences like, “They were invited over by their neighbors for Tea,” or “The animal rights group was well-loved among the monkeys they saved,” it can be easy to pass over them without a second thought, but both of these sentences are written in the clunky and unemotional passive voice. The passive voice, simply put, is the style of writing where things happen to your nouns. In the first example, the ball is what I like to call an “artificial subject.” The focus, instead of being on Tom as it would normally be, is on the ball. The passive voice here isn’t necessarily a problem if you actually want the focus to be on the ball. In a story about a magical ball that changes the fortunes of all who touch it, this sentence would be perfectly reasonable… In a typical story though, it’s clunky, and forces attention where it doesn’t belong. The fix is obvious, “Tom picked up and threw the ball.” The second two examples can be fixed by saying “Their neighbors invited them over for tea,” and “The monkeys loved the animal rights group that saved them.” The active voice is more direct and more emotional; this is why scientific papers are purposefully written in the passive voice! If it’s a little more confusing and a little less emotional, it sounds like a much more important discovery.


When Possible, Remove Direct Characterization

“Raul felt angry” or “Jen was the type of person to put the needs of everyone else above her own” are both perfectly reasonable sentences, but they might be examples of narrators overstepping their bounds. If Raul slams his fists on the table, don’t we know he’s angry? If Jen gives up a seat even though her ankle is throbbing, don’t we know that she puts the needs of others above her own? If your characters really do what you say they will, there’s no need to explain it beforehand! I would guess that, when it comes to the philosophy of “Show, don’t tell,” 90% of the violations come from direct characterization. Another issue I have with direct characterization is characterization devoid of examples. If you as the narrator say that Patty is a soft-hearted person who is always thinking of others, but, because she gets so caught up in the craziness of your plot, she never actually gets around to treating anyone with kindness, then your narration will ring false. Your reader will be confused as to why it is there in the first place.


Turn Responsive Characters Into Active Characters

As time goes on, more and more of the books that I edit are “action novels,” written in the vein of the modern television thriller. There is nothing wrong with that whatsoever – it’s good to have a highly intricate plot – but when perfecting your pre-editor draft, you should be on the lookout for areas where your character is being dragged along. Here are two scenarios to demonstrate what I’m talking about.


Scenario 1:

Your character is told by his superior to disarm a bomb, and so he does.

Scenario 2:

Your character is told by his superior that there’s not enough time to disarm the bomb, but instead, he disobeys a direct order and puts his life on the line to save the lives of everyone left in the building.


Seeing the scenarios written out like that, it’s probably fairly obvious which one makes for the more powerful scene. Oftentimes, however, authors simply don’t think about ways to put control into the hands of their characters. They think, “Hey, I have pages and pages filled with hot girls, fast cars, huge explosions and tons of emotional drama! What more do I need?!” The answer is character development. In my mind, when it comes to the novel, the plot should always be secondary to the characters. One of the best ways to develop your character is to have them act in ways that other people wouldn’t act, and to do things that other people wouldn’t do. They can still check the mail and go out to eat like normal people, but when they do, you aren’t giving your readers any glimpse into who they are as individuals. If you don’t give them options to act on their own, and instead yank them around through plot devices, you might have the makings for a decent action movie, but not a novel. This point reminds me of something I used to say when I was editing screenplays at UCSB: “There’s not a person alive who wouldn’t run away from an ax murderer.”


Remove Unnecessary Semi-Colons

A very common writing mistake is the overuse of semi-colons. Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers, used to say that all semi-colons did was “show off that you’ve been to college.” He completely swore them off in his writing, and his work didn’t suffer whatsoever as a result. While I personally value the occasional well-placed semi-colon, writers tend to go overboard. If something like twenty percent of your sentences have a semi-colon in the middle, you’re probably one of them.

If you’re using them correctly, a semi-colon should connect what would otherwise be two distinct yet similar sentences (or, less commonly, to separate items in a list). It should NOT serve as a conjunction as in the following example: “I love him; even though he doesn’t have much money, I can’t stay away.” If you’re using them accurately, the fix is easy – either replace the semi-colon with a period and capitalize what is now your second sentence, or replace it with a comma and add a conjunction. Here are some examples where a semi-colon detracts from the quality of your writing.

Example: He ran like a bat out of hell; as fast as he was going, he was so focused that he could almost count the blades of grass as he passed them.

Fix: He ran like a bat out of hell, but as fast as he was going, he was so focused that…

Example: The doors closed and I was alone. I could hardly breathe; it was as if all the air had rushed outside and I was doomed to suffocate inside those walls.

Fix: The doors closed and I was alone. I could hardly breathe. It was as if all the air had rushed outside and I was doomed to suffocate inside those walls.


Put Your Punctuation On The Inside Of Quotations

“This is the correct way to do it.”

“That’s right. It’s an easy fix that will make for a very happy editor!”


Remove Distracting Things After Quotations

He looked out from their safe-haven under the park bridge to make sure they were alone. They were.

“I can’t believe I didn’t notice this place before,” he said boisterously, lord knows why.

“Yeah… Sometimes we get so busy we forget about places like these,” she replied, even though she could have just said it.

“You look pretty,” he exclaimed, even though there is no reason whatsoever he should be exclaiming anything.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. If your character is going to say something, you should let their words tell us how they say it. An exception might be “he shouted,” because someone shouting might be relevant to the plot. Even then, if the line is followed by an exclamation point and somebody immediately comes by and tells him to keep it down, the reader will probably get the idea. Here is the same scene written in a simpler, much more elegant way:


He looked out from their safe-haven under the park bridge to make sure they were alone. They were.

“I can’t believe I didn’t notice this place before…”

“Yeah… Sometimes we get so busy we forget about places like these,” she said.

“You look pretty.”


In the above version, I didn’t even include the initial “he said,” because it wasn’t needed. He was the last person to do an action, so it stands to reason that the dialogue would belong to him. What’s more, given that they are alone under the bridge, the “she said” on the end of the third line makes it quite clear who the initial speaker was. If you have a lot of these kinds of things in your writing, you might not want to remove them out of fear of losing some of your word count – but that would be a mistake. Word count isn’t everything. It’s better to have a short, highly polished novel than a long novel full of distracting tidbits that risk annoying your readers. (Think Albert Camus!)


Fix Dialogue Bleed

For an in-depth discussion on dialogue bleed see my previous post Common Writing Styles That Cause Problems. Keep in mind that dialogue bleed doesn’t just occur when an author decides not to use quotations. It can happen under a variety of circumstances. Make sure that the cut-off between your dialogue and description is always clear.


Remove Exposition

Exposition happens when an author tries to get out back-story in shameless ways. For example, if at the beginning of a novel, your main character is sitting on the couch, thinking about her sister whose husband has recently died in a car accident, simply because it would take too much effort to reveal it naturally through dialogue or description, you’ve written exposition. Exposition is the death of subtext, and it often illuminates things that the reader will figure out in a few pages anyway. If possible, try to remove it entirely.


A Few Extra Suggestions That Require No Explanation:

  • Scan manuscript for typos.
  • Fix accidental point of view shifts.
  • Remove accidental drifting into the omniscient.
  • Replace pointless additions in-between dialogue such as “He paused” with real action.
  • If a character has a catch phrase such as “The way I see it…” make sure no other character uses it. If they do, it will ring false.
  • Watch for excessive punctuation. The most commonly overused marks are semicolons and ellipses, exclamation points and dashes being tie for a distant third.
  • Check stylistic choices for consistency.
  • Make sure your character’s motivations don’t change too suddenly at any point.
  • Read your dialogue aloud, and make sure it sounds natural.


If you keep this list in mind when you edit your novel, you’ll set your project apart from the average manuscript, and make it much easier to secure an editor, agent or publisher.


Writing Prompt

Take a story you've already written and edit it! You don't need me this week, but if you do have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them!