Deepening Characterization: How to Avoid Flat Characters—Part 2

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If you’ve ever read a boring story, chances are you’ve seen the effects of Flat Character Syndrome firsthand—and it’s not pretty. In my last post, I talked about why flat characters are problematic, and how to determine if your own “darlings” are suffering the same fate. Simply put, flat characters are unrealistic. Their true emotions, conversations, struggles, motivations, and reactions don’t come across on the page. I mentioned that a few well-known symptoms of FCS include issues with point of view, inconsistencies with physical appearance, and a lack of goals, motivations, and fears.

The biggest indicator that you may be dealing with flat characters has to do with emotion and how it comes across on the page. Many writers know the familiar saying “show, don’t tell.” This is probably the best advice I can give any writer. Don’t flat out tell us what a character is feeling (do you see what I did there?); rather, show us the emotion on the page. This technique will inevitably heal characterization problems. Other symptoms of FCS include the following.

4. Emotion + adverbs

Adverbs ending in ly are telling, so keep an eye out for them in your writing.

“Holy cow!” she said excitedly.

What does this example tell us? Sure, the character is excited; however, we don’t know how excited she is—and the writing doesn’t really pack a punch. In this instance, readers can probably sense her emotion from the dialogue alone.

Anytime the author uses the actual word for an emotion they want the character to feel on the page, more than likely, they are telling rather than showing. And telling is what leads to flat, unrealistic characters. When showing emotion, consider rewriting adverbs ending in ‘ly’ to display the character’s actual body language. If she’s excited or shocked, show us how her mouth dropped open, or if she’s upset, show us how her arms are crossed. Sometimes what your characters say and what they feel are two different things, just as it is with real people. Show us those complexities and the tension in your writing.

Rather than saying, “she was angry,” perhaps you can include a character’s physiological reaction to that emotion. Maybe her breathing speeds up, or her heart starts to pound, or her jaw and lips tighten, or her voice is shaking. Perhaps she is avoiding eye contact. Including details about her physical state shows readers so much more than “she was angry.”

Also, by cutting out unnecessary adverbs (e.g., enthusiastically, angrily, etc.), you are improving the pacing of your novel. Sometimes by deepening characterization, you enrich other aspects of your story, too.

5. Where’d all the tension go?

If there isn’t enough tension in your story, you probably have flat characters. Conflict and tension is a must in fiction writing, and the type of conflict needed varies from story to story. Anything from a character’s struggle determining the outcome of a situation to tension and opposition will help keep FCS at bay.

Your characters should not exist outside the realm of some sort of conflict. Regardless of what type of plot a novel pushes forward, conflict must be present. Perhaps there is some sort of outward, competitive action, or maybe it’s more of an internalized, mental struggle. Make sure you give your character a dream or a goal—something that is at stake. Maybe your character has to lose everything before he or she changes; perhaps there is an obstacle he or she has to overcome first before everything is resolved. Putting your character in interesting situations is not enough; there has to be conflict propelling him or her forward. Once we know the tension, your characters’ reactions will not only make for a good plot; they will draw us further into their motivations and inmost needs, desires, fears, etc.

6. Unrealistic Dialogue

Nothing kills characterization quite like unrealistic dialogue. Well-rounded characters are complex because their voices are not only realistic—they are distinctly personal. Unnecessary dialogue tags (e.g., she retorted, he exclaimed) slow down the story, but they can also indicate when characters haven’t developed distinct voices.

Sure, sometimes it is important to let readers know who is speaking—but for most authors, there are plenty of scenes where the reader should be able to determine the speaker by the dialogue. Even the narrative beats (the sentences that break up a dialogue, usually showing action or emotion) should draw us deeper into characterization rather than list off a bunch of unimportant actions.

Maybe one of your characters picks at her fingers when she’s anxious or bites her lip when she’s trying not to cry. These beats—interspersed in the dialogue—make the conversations more realistic and pull us deeper into who the character is and what he or she values.

What do you find compelling about your favorite characters? The best way to avoid flat characters is to learn more about the characters you love in another writer’s work. Reading will always improve your writing, whether you’re looking at bad examples of flat character symptoms you want to avoid or beautiful techniques you want to employ in your writing. Read the truth, and of course, write the truth—and write it with courage!