Deepening Characterization: How to Avoid Flat Characters—Part 1

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You’ve successfully pumped out the first (or second) draft of your novel—Bravo! You deserve a cookie (no, really, completing a book is an impressive feat, no matter how rough it may be in its current stage!). If you’re trying to motivate yourself toward self-editing or searching for the right editor for your manuscript, don’t forget to stop and pat yourself on the back. Far too often in this maddening book world, authors reside in Negativity when they should really pack up and move. You know Negativity? I don't recommend you go there. It’s right on the border of Confidence. If you have to go there, I recommend that you drive straight through Negativity and Self-Doubt and into Confidence. Trust me, you don’t want to linger. :)

Anyway, if you’ve pumped out your first book (hooray!), it’s time to take a careful look at the overarching themes and storytelling techniques. What are the areas that typically need the most TLC after draft one? Well, there are many, but for now, we will focus on the dreaded FLAT CHARACTER SYNDROME. Dun, dun, dun. It’s a real thing, guys, and it will spread throughout your story like the plague—ruining the plot, pacing, and general enjoyment for your readers.

What are Flat Characters?

Simply put, flat characters do not remain true to themselves like “real” people. Whether they are primary or secondary characters, there are usually inconsistencies when it comes to their emotions, motivations, goals, and reactions to various situations and relationships. Characters, like real people, should be complex.

There are a few reasons why characters can come across as flat on the page:

  1. POV problems

Point of view isn’t just important for pacing; it is crucial for character development. Whether your book is written in first-person POV or third-person POV, readers should be invested in the characters—whether they agree with their actions/intentions or not. How do you get readers to invest in your main character, or even a secondary character? Take us deeper inside the character’s head.

As readers, we want to know what goes through Susie’s mind when she catches her best friend, Diana, shoplifting. Clearly, she is conflicted, because Diana is her best friend. But it’s more than that: Diana is stealing from Susie’s aunt’s store. Does Susie feel compelled to come clean about Diana’s actions? Does she want to cover up for her best friend, because Diana has that kind of power over her? Is Diana stealing because there are financial problems at home, thus complicating the situation further for confused Susie? How can you demonstrate Susie’s thoughts without simply telling us?

Interior monologue: Your invaluable tool to deepen characterization and draw readers into the story. Use this technique as much as you need to; the deeper you lead us into Susie’s POV, the faster we get to know Susie and her fears, motivations, etc. She is no longer a flat character to us, but a realistic, conflicted friend.

2. Inconsistencies with physical appearance

Nothing creates distance between a character and a reader more than careless inconsistencies. If we discover that Susie has green eyes on page three and all of a sudden she has brown eyes in chapter thirteen, it becomes difficult to imagine our main character in the current scene. Readers will pick up on small details; and little changes in eye color, hair color, or tattoo placement can create a serious rift. My suggestion? Make Character Sheets. If you can answer the following questions about your characters and make sure their attributes remain consistent throughout your story, you will be in good shape.

1. What’s your character’s name (and preferred spelling)?

2. What is this character’s role in the book (heroine, hero, villain)?

3. What is his or her age, height, weight?

4. What is the character’s hair and eye color?

5. Does your character have any scars (physical, emotional), tattoos, or defining features?

6. What kind of sense of humor does the character have?

7. What does your character desire most?

8. What is your character’s home life or background like?

9. What are his or her strengths and weaknesses? Motivations? Goals?

10. How do your characters see themselves? How are they perceived by others?

3. Readers don’t get a clear sense of their goals, motivations, fears, etc.

People are always a mixture of good and evil, flaws and strengths; that’s what makes characters human. Make sure you aren’t creating perfect characters or they will fall flat for readers. You can dream up characters everyone loves to hate (and if you can pull this off, kudos!), but the key to doing this is by giving even your greatest villain redeemable qualities.

Now, this doesn’t mean there is always redemption at the end of your novel, but developing a well-rounded character with good and bad qualities makes room for empathy. Frequently, the character’s weakest traits are why they change in the end, and the strongest traits will often be what gets them into trouble the most. Make sure to include variety in your characters. Even friends with similar interests will react differently in certain situations.

It’s also worth mentioning that authors must reveal this information (goals, motivations, flaws, etc.) by showing readers rather than telling readers. The way in which an author conveys character emotions will completely determine whether the character—and story, for that matter—is balanced and developed or flat and boring. Characters always act, think, feel, and talk, so it is important to balance your story with all of these things.

Next week, I’ll talk about how to successfully share emotion in a way that grips readers and deepens characterization, thus avoiding the dreaded flat character. I’ll also dive into other symptoms of Flat Character Syndrome, so stick around! In the meantime, write the truth, friends, and write it with courage!