Writers talk a lot about character development. Even in plot driven literature readers want characters whom they can relate to, like, dislike, care for, root for, dismiss. What does a well-developed character look like though? Essentially, the character will have depth – the complexity of everything which defines that character revealed through the writer’s craft.
How does a writer create depth in a character? A few things to keep in mind:
1. Recognize the difference: Not every character needs to be fully developed. Some characters, referred to by English teachers as flat charactersm are written with only a few character traits, many times stereotypical, for the purposes of presenting a contrast to the main character or for highlighting something situational to the story. These characters play a short role in the story and don’t need a lot of development. The main characters, which the same teachers call round characters, however, need to be dynamic, meaning the writer allows the readers to see the many facets to the characters and that the characters change as they are affected by events in the story, changes which the readers are able to see as they read.
2. Use perception: In real life people see one another and the world differently. That fact should be represented in stories as well. As a writer “shows” scenes, the characters in a story can reveal bits and pieces about the other characters and the situations in the story. Doing so gives the reader access to more perspectives which makes for a deeper understanding. For example, seeing that a mother and a father view and respond to their daughter differently might tell a reader much about the daughter and her relationships to both.
3. Think beyond the obvious: Instead of describing physical traits or narrating factual information, help the reader to see the emotion or response elicited by the trait or fact or the feeling behind the trait or fact. Descriptions help readers visualize a character but sometimes a literal description can be limiting. Instead of saying a character is tall, dark and handsome, show the reader how the character’s height made another character feel or how attraction was immediate. Then the reader imagines for him or herself what the physical description is while being drawn into the character more deeply.
4. Embrace imperfections: People are not perfect, and characters should not be either. It’s the flaws, quirks, scars, which readers are usually drawn to, and those flaws, quirks, scars can serve as a foundation to the how, what and why’s of the character’s actions, thoughts and decisions which in turn creates depth to the character and also for the story line.
5. Be photographic: Choose a focal point for your character, a lens through which the writer can reveal bits and pieces to the reader. In a photo some details are more in focus and some are more in the background. As in real life, characters see some things more clearly and are dense to other aspects of their situations. Maybe allow a reader to see the disparity within a character, or have the details slowly come to surface to help the reader see that there is more to the character than he or she first realized.
6. Encompass the whole: Remember that just as with real people, characters have a whole self – goals in life, wishes for betterment, secrets, strengths, weaknesses, past achievements, desires, hang-ups, etc.... These need to be seen by readers to varying degrees within the story. As a writer, choices need to be made about which aspects of the whole self will be written in, but giving readers a sense that there is a whole self to the characters is what will draw the readers to the characters.
Paula Castner is a wife, mother of three, and a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative as well as a freelance writer, playwright, writing and baking workshop facilitator, and drama director. She receives emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.