How do you add depth to flat characters?

December 22, 2010

During this revision, I’m working on giving a few of my characters more depth. I need to make them come alive, and let the reader get to know them.

Kinda wish my characters were pink, with six legs and a horn -- It'd be so much easier to describe them. (Photo credit: Flickr's Ivan Walsh)

Like story arc and dialogue, character development is difficult for me because I don’t have much experience with it. I don’t develop characters in journalism. I offer a perfectly accurate quote, and tell the reader why it matters that so-and-so said it, explaining their relevance with a title or brief description. I never explain what they look like or how they think or why they became who they are. None of that matters in a news story.

But in a memoir, it does. I’m good at developing characters when I have lots of chapters to do it, when the character sticks around long enough that I can show who they are through dialogue and action. But when a character is only in the story for a chapter or so, they often fall flat.

Part of the problem is that I’m relying on my memory to flesh out each person. Unlike fiction, when the author is free to make up any details that help show a character’s personality, in memoir the characters are all real. The way they look, how they walk — none of it can be invented for the sake of the story. It all has to come from memory.

My agent marked in my manuscript the characters who need to be revamped. So I know what I need to do. The problem is, I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to make my characters three-dimensional.

So I’m turning to you for advice: How do you give your characters depth?

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    13 Replies to “How do you add depth to flat characters?”

    • christine says:

      I’m not a writer (yet) but I read A hell of a LOT and I’m assuming that characters with substance in books are no different than people you meet in real life. I find the way people talk, what they talk about and do and where they’ve been the best ways to judge ‘substance’. In real life its not forced all this information…you get it gradually over time just like a possible friendship would develop. If you think about it, books do the same.

    • angie says:

      I wonder if adding more internal dialogue about how the character’s presence is affecting you or impacting your experience would be helpful. I’m still in the rough draft of my memoir and I’m trying to get in touch with how I’m feeling as I’m interacting with the person in a particular scene.

    • Andrea James says:

      You’re way ahead of me here…but my writing coach did something that always stuck with me.

      In my last newspaper job, I profiled the owner of a pizza shop in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The story was too long , and so I cut a bunch, but I left it in the “notes” section so she could see what I cut.

      Well, she saw that I’d included a line that said the pizza owner converted to evangelical Christianity in his 20s. But, I’d cut this line:

      “His employees have wide liberty to dress as they please. Piecora almost drew the line when his cashier showed up in the ’90s with purple hair. When he prayed about it, he said, God said to let it be. So he did, and was rewarded.”

      She swapped them out. She eliminated the part about him converting, and added the part about him talking to God about an employee’s hair. The latter is much more telling, and gives him more depth than the former.

      We’re always told to “show, don’t tell” but we all forget, too. Especially because we have limited space. And where we forget is where characters fall flat.

      The story is here: http://www.seattlepi.com/business/344402_piecora21.html

      http://www.seattlepi.com/business/344402_piecora21.html

    • I close my eyes and envision them, trying to recall their appearance and what it felt like to be in their presence. I also imagine how I would describe them to a friend if they asked, “What’s he/she like?”

      And I sometimes read someone else’s description of a character in order to see/study the technique they used. Sometimes I see a detail I hadn’t thought to include and I find a way to bring that in.

      And at some point, I think of something they said and how they said it, which will often convey a sense of what/who they are.

      Hope that’s helpful somehow!

    • Kim Kircher says:

      When writing my memoir, I brainstormed a list for each major character. I included quirky sayings and characteristics (my husband bounces on the balls of his feet when he’s happy), past experiences that define him/her, moods, etc. I even added things life favorite color, if he/she were an animal, what would it be, that kind of thing. From there, it was an easy step to demonstrate the character’s depth by using showing details–much like Andrea used in her article described above. I actually found the exercise quite fun. Hope that helps.

    • Hope Clark says:

      Lexi,

      Dialogue shows a character faster than anything I know. Then beats, or actions while you’re telling the story. Someone can reach up to shake a hand. Flinch when no one else did. Throw a hand on a hip. Internal monologue is next. The last thing about characterization, to me anyway, is getting down to hair color, height and weight. Sometimes you can “see” a character and never physically describe them.

      Hope
      (who just sold her first mystery novel – 🙂

    • Brent Winter says:

      Ground the characters in physical reality by describing them in terms of sensory input. That is, describe how a character looks; show the character doing something, i.e., coughing or picking at a scab or covering their mouth when they laugh; describe how a character smells, i.e., perfume, unwashed, whatever; show the character eating or drinking, and don’t just show it but describe it; if you touch a character in any way, describe the touch; describe the character’s voice or laugh or footfall, to get the sense of hearing in; and in all these instances, strive for specific, concrete details, not vagueness or abstractions. It’s said that Mark Twain was such a noticer of details that he could see a crowd standing outside a theater and tell you who had their hands in their pockets, who gestured when they talked, etc. Those are the kinds of details that help turn characters into people.

    • Alexis Grant says:

      Great suggestions, everyone. THANK YOU! I’m going to compile these into one document and refer to it as I’m revising.

    • Alyssa says:

      Oh yay, fun question/post and loved hearing the answers! I agree with Hope about dialogue. One other thing I’ve learned is that if you’re having trouble showing someone through their actions or dialogue or what you truly know about them, you can say, “I imagine if so-and-so were….they’d….”

      I’ll make up an example. So, say you’re talking about someone you met in Africa, you could write, “If X character ever came to America, you’d likely find him on a tour of every McDonalds in the state of New York.” That was completely pulled out of nowhere, but hopefully sort of makes sense? Think of that character, put them in a situation, and think of how they’d react! (I don’t know, hopefully I’m not totally messing up my explanation of this, I wish I had a better example… 😉 )

    • Jeff says:

      Hi Lexi – I was just poking around and ran into this trail, so I thought I’d add a bit of my own to it. To me, the great reads are the ones that ooze personal to me in a way I can imagine & would have felt if I had been there. Of course you can’t live in everyone’s skin, but the great horror writers know just where to poke you in what you thought was personal secret hidden ‘scare place’. Well, travel, romance, or anything else has similar evocative spots within the reader. Touch the imagination and emotion and let the reader feel it for themselves in a way that reading it in a newspaper could never bring out. You may risk exposing your own inner self writing this way, but you can’t pull on readers’ emotions without exposing a few of your own as well, ‘eh?
      Good luck and have fun.

      Jeff

    • Alexis Grant says:

      From Jennifer (@conversiondiary)…

      I’ve noticed that it comes down to choosing *rich scenes*, i.e. moments in which a person reveals a lot about him or herself. Now, it’s tricky in memoir because sometimes your richest scenes aren’t directly related to the plot.

      So, for example, if I were writing a memoir about my day today and mentioned that my mother-in-law is watching Pinocchio in the living room with the kids, you wouldn’t know much about her. She could be a blue-blooded matriarch, a rugged mountain climber, or anything in between. How can I flesh out this character?

      Well, I could mention that when the phone rings, I smirk when I wonder if it’s another telemarketer — yesterday she picked up the phone and yelled to a representative from Bank of America that they were harassing us, asking just what kind of a person calls a house three times every day. Shouting over Fox News, which played at full volume in the background, she told them to “stop being a pain in my daughter-in-law’s ass” and told them she’d see them if they ever called this house again. Then she hung up on them.

      I could work in a brief backstory about the time some rumored gang members were vandalizing houses in her neighborhood. The neighbors warned her to stay inside if she saw them come around, but instead she burst out her front door, chased them down in her car, cornered them, and forcibly held them until the cops arrived. Back at her house, her neighbor named Skeeter came running over when he heard the news, asking, “What if they come after you for revenge?!” She chewed the toothpick in her mouth for a moment, then shrugged. “They’d better bring a gun,” she said.

      Both stories provide a ton of information about her as a character, and both could hopefully be worked in as asides or backstory into necessary scenes in the book.

      That’s what I do, anyway. We’ll see if it’s effective when my book comes out. 🙂 I enjoyed reading others’ responses as well!

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