Currently I’m reading a novel in which the characters do not have distinctive features except for their names, ages, races, and their actions in the plot. The plot is well developed, but to me the characters feel flat. The novel is fairly successful—often readers don’t care about characterization if there’s a good plot and fast pace. But many readers want more: they want characters who seem like real people.
What can be done to give more depth to a fictional character?
- Show even minor characters in their choices and ideas. For example, here’s the minor character of Glory Townsend, an artistic, independently-minded young woman. Glory had a rough start, but was adopted and grew up as a privileged child in another town. (Glory is a baby in The Girl on the Mountain, Book one of the Mountain Women Series, set in the early 1900s). In book three (Midwinter Sun) she’s grown up, and she travels to the coal mine town where she was born to get to know her brother. Readers understand that Glory is artistic as well as hard-working because they see her making dresses and upholstering furniture though she doesn’t need to. They recognize her confidence as she goes to college (higher education for women was rare in 1915), rejects a suitor, and decides where she will live, and they know she’s a caring person because she’s willing to endure hardship in order to meet her brother. They know she’s well-educated, because while other characters use non-standard English constructions and occasional profanity, Glory’s dialog is always proper.
- When writing dialog, try to make each person’s language distinct in style and her motive for speaking true to character. Glory’s friends speak in ways that reveal them as timid, diplomatic or outspoken, crude or proper, conciliatory or confrontational. If, for example, your story requires someone to bring up an uncomfortable topic, ask yourself which character would be most likely to do it.
- Show characters by the way they react to others. In book four (The Women’s War) the reader sees that in spite of Glory’s privileged life, she relates to others with no sense of superiority or difference.
- Contrast characters. Personalities are more pronounced and interesting when we see them interacting with their opposites, whether allies or antagonists. In The Women’s War, the minor character of Glory is balanced by the minor character of her close friend Virgie, a woman who is older, uneducated, crude in speech and loose in morals.
- Make sure every character has a role to play in the plot and there aren’t too many offstage. My personal reading preference leans toward literary fiction, which means I can enjoy a story in which nothing much happens if the characters and insights are memorable. Most readers, however, want a strong plot. Because I’m so in love with characterization, I have a hard time minimizing the number of people in a story. Each book of my series continues the story of the main characters and introduces new ones, and their lives are still being influenced by people who are dead! For the fourth book I created a list of characters, because everyone forgets.
- Keep notes and sketches of personalities that interest you. Characters from your notes may inspire the hero of a story or become minor characters that help drive the plot, show contrast or provide obstacles. I haven’t used the examples below because as yet I’ve found no role for them in a work-in-progress.
- Kind of person who wants to teach others a lesson, thinks he's right and can do everything better than others, is so confident of his expertise that often others refuse to help him
- A person who uses “I” and “My” excessively; seems to require an audience; holds forth oblivious to the fact that she's hogging the show; is the first to respond to a comment on a new topic, then she monologues on it
I hope there’s a snippet here that will help someone. It can take a lot of years of dedicated writing to develop a style that both suits us and also resonates with a reading audience. Good luck!
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