Creating Characters with Depth
One of the worst things you can have in your story is a cast of characters that fall flat on their two-dimensional faces. Characters who are not only uninteresting, but also aren’t believable. Flat characters can spoil a fantastic plot, but they can be avoided. What goes into creating characters with depth?
First, let’s talk about what makes a character flat vs. round. A flat character typically has few defining traits, does not change over the course of the story, and won’t surprise the reader. At best, they’re forgettable; at worst, they’re offensively stereotypical. A round character, on the other hand, undergoes a physical, mental or emotional journey and is transformed by the end of the plot. Like a real person, they have flaws. They make mistakes, struggle with difficult situations and ultimately need to reckon with the decisions they’ve made. They play an integral role in the progression of the plot. If the story would have gotten along just fine without them, they probably don’t need to be in it.
Here’s a writing exercise that can help you create characters who have rich lives and deep backgrounds – which, of course, you want to do! Even if some of these details are never fully revealed in the finished piece of writing, they can be helpful for you to know as you decide how a particular character might act in a given situation. Note: these are not either/or questions, but rather possibilities to get you thinking. I encourage you to create character sheets and get at least a brief profile for your main characters in writing. Being able to draw from those sheets throughout the story-writing process can be invaluable and save you a lot of time. What color were that character’s eyes again? Check the sheet. If someone picks a fight with them, how might they react based on their personality? Check the sheet!
Try answering the following questions for each of your main characters:
- What motivates your character? What are their long-term goals? What would they like to achieve by the end of the story?
- What are their personality traits? Anxious? Jokester? Shy? Short-tempered?
- What are their fears? What keeps them up at night? Do they have any phobias (spiders, tight spaces, crowds, etc.)?
- What are their other characteristics? Are they artistic? Athletic? Analytical? Scholarly?
- What are their strengths and weaknesses? Are they good with computers? Can they sing well? Are they impulsive? Do they fumble with physical tasks?
- Do they have any quirks or nervous habits? Do they pop their gum? Tap their toe? Fidget or play with clothing? Hum to themselves? Talk to an imaginary friend?
- Are they open and genuine around others or do they keep up a wall? Are they quick to get close to other people? Are they distrustful?
- In which direction does your character’s moral compass point? Do they want to help people? Are they only looking out for themselves? Are they power hungry or altruistic? Do the ends justify the means for them? Do they loathe humanity and want to end the world?
- What little things make them happy or angry? The rain? Salt water taffy? Motown? Bees?
- What are their favorites? Food? Movies? Places? Colors? Animals?
- When they aren’t dealing with the main conflict or problem in the book, what do they enjoy doing? What are their hobbies?
- What traits are they attracted to in friends or lovers?
- Where is their favorite place to be? What place do they avoid like the plague?
- What type of weather do they like? Do they prefer to be indoors or outdoors?
- Do they like music? If so, which genres? Do they sing along?
- Are they extremely picky and rigid or are they willing to compromise? Do they put others’ preferences over their own?
- How old are they? Do they look their age, or do they appear younger or older than they are?
- What color is their hair? Do they dye it? How would you describe their hairstyle? Is it neatly coiffed or wildly neglected?
- What is their race and ethnicity?
- What color are their eyes? Are they bug eyed, squinty, or glazed over? Do they avoid eye contact? Are they creased from laughter or set in a permanent glare? Do they wear glasses or an eye patch?
- Do they smile, frown, scowl or laugh often?
- How would you describe their clothing style? Are they fashionable and expensively dressed? Do they just throw on the first clothes they come across in their closet? Do they wear hand-me-downs from older siblings? Are they dressed in a job uniform? Is their clothing practical given their situation?
- Do they flaunt their physical assets or dress modestly? Do they wear gaudy jewelry or do they never take off a locket that has sentimental value? Does their clothing reflect any other aspects of their personality or background?
- Are they close with their family? Did they grow up poor or well off? Are their parents together or divorced? Were they raised by a single parent or step-parent? Were they adopted?
- Where is their hometown? Do they still live there or did they leave and never come back?
- Do they have any trauma in their past? How are they dealing with it?
- Do they have a best friend? Crazy ex-boyfriend? Are they a loner? Do they work well as part of a team?
- Did they graduate high school? College? Medical school? Did they drop out or get home-schooled? Were they a straight-A student or did they struggle to keep up? What are their best and worst subjects? Were they bullied or were they the prom queen?
- If they are employed, what is their job? Did they pursue their profession or did they fall into it? What path led them to that job? Are they climbing the corporate ladder, a blue-collar worker or are they self-employed? Do they make their income through illicit means?
- Is their history a defining part of who they are or something they’re trying to leave in the past? How much of their backstory do they disclose to others? Are they seeking vengeance for past wrongs? Are they running from something?
These are only a few questions you can answer about your characters – continue to build and flesh them out. Get to know them. It is my hope that these questions will act as a springboard for you to answer more questions about your characters and strive to dig deeper. You are only limited by your time and imagination.