some Thoughts on Writing and developing Characters in your Novel
Writing Three Dimensional Characters
If you spend any time reading writing blogs or book reviews, you’ll run across some criticism of books that have two-dimensional characters who are flat and bore readers.
What I think the critics really mean to say is that such characters are actually “one dimensional” in terms of their actions and personalities. That they are characters who can be easily defined by one dominant trait. Because they are “single note” characters, they don’t connect with readers on any kind of emotional level.
One thing I try to remind myself when writing is that dull characters will cause readers to feel the same kind of dread that most of us feel when forced to spend time with a dull relative or co-worker. When that happens, odds are you’ll probably be polite, but you’re not likely to enjoy it, and there’s a good chance that the whole time you’re with the person you’ll be thinking about a graceful way to bring the encounter to an end. Unfortunately for writers, readers can do this a lot easier than we can simply by closing a book or toggling back to their Kindle library.
That’s why it’s imperative to make sure you never have a character that your readers find dull. Because in a book world with seemingly infinite choices, readers won’t stick around.
When writing your novel, there are some simple ways to make sure your characters don’t bore your readers. One of the best way to do this is to make them unpredictable. You can do this by giving them traits that seem to be complete contradictions. Isn’t that one of the things that made Tony Soprano so compelling? One minute he would be crying over ducks migrating away from his pool and the next he would be as cold-hearted as anybody on television. The same dynamic likely applies to many characters (and people) you likely find interesting. They have personalities that are in conflict. It makes them inherently unpredictable and that makes them interesting.
Another way to make sure none of your characters is dull is to have them do something that nobody would expect. When writing your main and secondary characters think of several things nobody would expect that character to do and then have them do it. I can guarantee you that a character who does something unexpected, as long as it’s not cliché, will never be described as boring. It makes them hard to figure out, which will mean your readers find them interesting.
Another good option is to have the character create tension with your other characters. Whether it is doing something or saying something that makes another character feel uncomfortable, it will resonate with your readers. When a character makes another character uncomfortable it creates conflict, which is one of the best ways to keep your readers engaged and to keep the pages turning. I’ve always agreed with the philosophy that some of the strongest relationships you can form in life can be built out of conflict. That’s true between people, and it’s also true between writers and readers.
You can also make sure none of your characters are ever criticized as being two dimensional by having them demonstrate emotional depth. This can be done by an action, through dialogue between characters, or even with an internal thought. The key in these situations is to remember the oft heard writing advice to “show, not tell.” If you show your character displaying some real emotion through a reaction, even better if it’s unpredictable, you can be sure nobody will think they are dull.
When revising your manuscript take a look at the characters that will matter to your readers. Could they be considered one dimensional? If yes, then it’s time to work your magic as a writer and make them compelling. It’s time to give them a personality transplant. (Too bad we can’t do that with Brian in the next cubicle.)
Give your character at least two traits that are in conflict. Have them say or do something that makes another character angry or makes another character laugh. Have them do something that elicits total sympathy for them. Or something that is deserving of complete contempt.
What do you find noble in other people? What could another person do to that would earn your complete contempt? Have your characters do those things and your readers will connect with them.
Remember, the same things that will trigger an emotional response from you are likely to trigger an emotional response from your readers. And if you do that, if you get your readers to respond to your characters in an emotional way, you’ll have characters who are compelling. The kind of characters that reviewers will never criticize as being two dimensional.