More Complicated Than Icebergs—But More Fun

By Peter Leavell @peterleavell

She spills on the fancy tablecloth again.

With practiced efficiency, my family finishes the dishes, whisks off the fine linen, and tosses it into washer.

My kids are good at cleaning up messes.

You’ve heard writing teachers compare character development to icebergs. Icebergs? Engines full reverse! Writing fascinating characters is so much more than a floating chunk of ice.

When the laundry is done, we put the cloth back on the table. The color across the center of the squared tablecloth is a cheerful yellow and blue. The bright patterns reflect our love and joy.
Most likely, spills on the fabric will reoccur next meal. And we’ll work the same routine.

You’d think at this age, she’d learn to keep from tipping over cups. Or dropping plates. Taco chips with salsa balancing on the corn’s edge drip every time. And there’s the breaking of fine china… Why do we let her handle the dishes?

Build a bigger iceberg, and you’ll sink bigger ships? Is that how we’re going to write? Deep knowledge of your character allows for depths on the pages of your….blah blah blah.

Her hand slips and the knife draws a deep line through her skin. We help her to the bathroom and I bandage her finger while one of the kids clean up and finish cutting the carrots.

Why would anyone ever let her have a knife? Ridiculous?

Building an iceberg is for the author. The reader sees far less of the iceberg than writing teachers hope. What do I mean? Even the deepest literary characters are shallow compared to the bits and pieces that make up a real human being. The writer’s job is to trigger the reader’s emotional response to a situation in the story so that the reader’s imagination concocts a character from their own experiences and icebergs, making the characters relatable. 

After another spill in a restaurant, a stranger in his 60’s leans over and asks my wife why her hands shake so bad.

She’s humiliated. Her hands have shaken her entire life. But she doesn’t tell him that. It’s just one more rock around her neck that reminds her that she’s broken.

The author must find relatable aspects in their own characters they can bring forward to connect with the reader’s imagination and past. Iceberg? Rubbish. Your character is a mix of ingredients. One part was grown on a distant farm, harvested, then ground into powder. Another was pressed and aged in an oak barrel. Another was plucked from a tree and pitted. And so many more until the ingredients have created a dish the reader can taste. Some ingredients are a hint, while some flavors bite. Every reader has different tastes.

My wife returns home. That night she makes dinner. Doesn’t spill. Doesn’t burn her fingers.

That will show that horrible man.
Later, her shaking fingers try to click on the computer’s mousepad at just the right time. She can’t get it. She’s glad the horrible man isn’t looking.

The snapshot of my wife’s life might annoy some, or endear her to others. A small ingredient to her recipe (or as I call her, a dish), ignites the reader’s imagination. 

Create ingredients for your characters, and you’ll have an amazing meal for your readers.

The day I had married my wife and we said our vows, I took her hands.

Her hands still don’t shake when I hold them.


More Complicated Than Icebergs—But More Fun by Peter Leavell (Click to Tweet)

Writing fascinating characters is more than a floating chunk of ice~ Peter Leavell (Click to Tweet)

The author must find relatable aspects in their characters~ Peter Leavell (Click to Tweet)

Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing’s Best award for First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. Learn more about Peter’s books, research, and family adventures at