You’re reading a book and the character falls flat. The plot is good, the structure is good, the dialogue is good, but the character… something about the character just doesn’t work. You ask yourself what it is, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Then it hits you, the character has no substance, no depth. He’s one dimensional, and you can’t connect with him. At that point you realize the characters of a novel are ultimately the driving force. You connect with them. You root for them. You fall in love with them. When they’re one dimensional, you lose connection to the book. As a writer you may find yourself asking these questions: how do I create characters with depth? How do I create characters my readers will fall in love with?
Create an Outline of Your Character
Before you write your book you create an idea of what it’s going to be. You write an outline of some sort. This may be a brief synopsis, bullet points, or a very in depth chapter analysis, but you create a map to follow. The same idea works when creating characters. Outline your character when you outline the book. Create a loose idea of who and what your character is going to be, like a paint by number, then fill in the blanks.
Your original character analysis isn’t set in stone. It’s fluid and changes with your story, but the foundation remains. This is where you fill in the blanks with things like eye color, height, age, and weight. This is where you decide what the obstacles will be, if any, and whether or not there is a love interest. This is where you look at family, location, wealth, social status, skills, challenges, weaknesses, etc. All these things begin to paint a picture of who your character is, and many of them will define where the story begins. To give you an example we can look at Katniss from The Hunger Games. Here are bullet points for her character.
- Age: 16
- Weight: 110
- Hair color: Dark brown
- Skills: Bow and Arrow, foraging
- Weaknesses: Anger. Doesn’t see the big picture. Resists her own power
- Family: Mother and sister
- Social status: Low. Could be defined as slave or serf
- Motivation: Protect her sister
- Love interest: Gale and/or Peeta
- Wealth: None
- Obstacles: 23 tributes. President Snow
- Challenges: Tribute in the Games
If we continued with this list we would flesh out many more details for the character that we haven’t yet unearthed. We’ll do that in a minute, but for now the idea is to write something that takes the picture of the character in your head and begins to create it as a 3D experience.
Here is a bullet point list for my character, Lily, from Where Shadows Dwell.
- Age: 20
- Weight: 120
- Hair color: Dark
- Eyes: Brilliant green
- Skills/Qualities: Endurance. Compassion
- Weaknesses: Ryan. Doesn’t see her value. Fear
- Family: Mother (dies in the beginning) Father (abandoned)
- Social/Wealth: Middle income. Will not be in the power circles, and won’t slip into her father’s circles
- Motivation: Reconnect with her family. Free James from his past
- Love interest: Ryan. James
- Obstacles: Ryan. Her Father. Unknown assailant.
- Challenges: Overcoming limited beliefs about herself. Overcoming Ryan’s obsession. Overcoming a vengeful murderer.
I challenge you right now to write a bullet point list for your character. Set the foundation so you can build on it.
Ask Your Character Why?
After you write the character outline, open a dialogue with your character and yourself. Start asking why. Take those bullet points and expand on them. Pulling from my list, I start with skills and qualities. Why do you have endurance, why are you compassionate? What happened to create these traits for you? Listen for the answers as they come and jot them down. They may look like this:
I’ve learned to rely on myself
I’ve been hurt and don’t want to see others hurt
I’ve felt the pain of abandonment. This created a sort of obsession for me and I won’t give up
I’m afraid of losing everything. This fear keeps me going
Jot down every answer that comes and ask why again. Ask why for the answers that have been given. Dive into those deeper and deeper. When you’ve exhausted your why for those, move on to the next bullet point. Ask why and dive as deep as you can go.
What you’ll discover in this exercise is your character. You’ll find a person with motivations, fears, strengths, weaknesses, good qualities, and bad qualities. Everything you discover can then be built upon to create the 3D character you see in your head. Will everything you unearth go on the pages? No. It won’t. But you know who your character is now so the story will weave around and inside of their personality. It’ll begin to dance with what you’ve created. You’ll understand why they do what they do, even if you think what they’re doing is completely stupid.
Katniss is a good example of this. She isn’t in love with Peeta, then she is, then she isn’t. She is confused. Why doesn’t she just come out and say it? Because she doesn’t understand her emotions, because her motivations to save her family aren’t allowing her to look, and because she has Gale also playing on those emotions, creating another level of chaos for her. Her character is empathetic to a very large degree. The character doesn’t understand that, but the writer does and she incorporates that empathy. It is both a strength and a weakness. This isn’t necessarily explained in the novel, but it’s shown through the character interaction with the people around her.
Creating depth to your character is essential. You want your story to be well received; you want people to connect with the world you’ve created. Your character must have depth. As a final note, I have one more piece of advice. Give your characters flaws. Give them a lot of flaws, because they are meant to be human and humans have flaws. If your character is flawless, he will fall flat. Don’t let that happen to your characters. Don’t cheat them of the potential to grow. A flawed character will grow, expand, learn, and change. A flawed character is a character we can connect with. While you’re at it, break your characters. It’s good for them, and gives your readers something to connect with.