Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Writing Basics - Character Depth and Levels

Recently, I did a beta read for an author I met on the SCWBI board. The book wasn’t bad, but I noticed a few reoccurring issues that I felt needed to be addressed.  I sent her my analysis, and she was overjoyed in my review. (At least she put up a good front through email. :-)) I’m pretty technical, and I like to give examples so that people understand what I’m talking about. I decided it may be good to put some of the information I told her out here on the blog just in case anyone else needs it. I’m not sure how many items I’ll discuss, and I will not be using her book as reference.

The first problem I noticed was the depth of her characters.
Depending on who you talk to, Characters will rank either number one or number two in importance for any story. Middle Grade fiction tends to lean toward it being number one, while speculative fiction for adults leans in in at number two. (Generally from what I’ve read/seen.) But either way it, super-duper important.
When I read her novel, the first thing that I noticed was that I could not tell her characters apart. Even doing her write-up, I still was confused. I kept having backtrack to figure out who was who, and why they were doing xyz. The problem was she only had four of them, and one was a girl – who didn’t act or sound any different than the boys.

Every character in a story should be different. I’m convinced that each one, even “extras” should have their own personality. I’ve heard many stories about how authors have accomplished this in their books – so I’ve listed a few.
  1. Backstory. Characters gain depth with experiences, just like people. What has happened to them shapes them. Write a couple of short stories for your characters. The stories don’t need to be long maybe a few pages. What this will do is give your characters experiences “outside” the book. It makes them seem more rounded because they will sometimes do things that aren’t expected. As the reader gets to know the character, readers will pick up on the patterns. This is also great if a book deal comes around because you can put a lot of these short stories online to gain more interest.
  2. Human References. This is the one I hear the most often. Authors base characters off of someone else. Many authors in their interviews may say “I thought about this actor when I was writing” or “a lot was based on my sister.” This method works well for most projects – even screenplays. Because the writer is “casting” as they write. The problem with this method is that to get a slightly different personality, which is sometimes needed for the story, a writer may have to blend people together to create characters. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it just doesn’t.
  3. Questions. I’ve heard several aspiring authors say they’ve used this method. And I’ve encouraged a few to use it as well. There are several places where you can find a list of 100 questions to ask your character. By filling in the information, it gives the author a better understanding of who the character is. The problem with this method is that it’s not organic. What if you run into a situation that the 100 questions can’t answer? Sure you know the birthday – but how will that really help you? If nothing important happened on a birthday it will not give you any answers.
  4. Combination. The best IMO. Mix and match the information to give your characters multiple levels of who they are, and why they act a certain way.
If I’m creating a MC or Supporting my thought process is the following:
  • What does this character represent to the book?
  • What would I personally like to see? (Fr’ex: Do I want to add diversity / Go against stereotypes / Have some fun)
  • What is the overall mood that this character will bring with them and how does that compare and contrast to what I already have? (Will this be a best friend to the MC? An informative person to the MC? An antagonist?)
  • What would I like to see later from this character?
  • Will I need to remove them from the storyline at some point?
As these ideas are forming I begin to get a mental picture of who, and what I want to see. An example in DAWN OF SHADOWS is Evan.

(Point 1) Backstory – He rescued his younger brother going, against the code of his unit. He became a Messenger by happenstance and doesn’t remember any “bad times” in his life.

(Point 2) Human References –Kid from Daddy Day Care.

(Point 3) Questions –

What does this character represent to the book? He’s supporting to the MC. He’s the first “teacher” to the MC in the ways of this world. He shows the MC a different kind of love.
What would I personally like to see? Evan is Black. He’s not a thug, doesn’t play sports, and doesn’t use slang. His favorite things are traveling and his brother.
What is the overall mood that this character will bring with them and how does that compare and contrast to what I already have? He is close to a best friend to the MC. His mood is light and fun. He is full of information and life lessons.
What would I like to see later from this character? I’d like to see him have his own adventure. I want to put him at odds with other characters and create separation.
Will I need to remove them from the storyline at some point? Debatable. He’s the type of character that you want to see win, but it could be dramatic to remove him as well.
So there you have it. Hope this helps someone.


  1. I see this a lot in the manuscripts I critique, too. I think sometimes we THINK we know our characters better than we actually do, which is why answering the kinds of questions you listed can be really helpful. Minor characters, especially, can feel like part of the scenery if we're not careful.

  2. I'm glad I'm not the only one. Thanks so much for coming by.