Deepening Characterization

by Normandie Fischer

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Curled up with a book that has become a favorite, even though our unread stack threatens to topple. 

Here’s my question for today. Why do we read some books more than once while setting others aside with barely another thought?

Last month, I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with an out-of-town reader who’d been so affected by one of my books that she’d had to pick it up and dig through it again. Something about that book’s characters resonated with what she’d experienced, and she wanted more. I was charmed, of course, but that’s what we want, isn’t it? For our characters to touch hearts and change lives.

And yet stories abound that leave us unsatisfied. We feel cheated.

Think of a B-grade movie where the good guy is all good and the bad guy is all bad, where there’s plenty of action and little character development. In some books, characters appear to act on the story’s stage, but we don’t really know them. We have little idea what makes them who they are or why they do what they do, except in generalized terms. I just finished reading a much-touted book that made me want to throw something at the main character. This big-five published author hadn’t dug deeply enough into the character to give me, the reader, motivation for the protagonist’s poor choices and over-the-top reactions. I’m sorry, because I know the author has the ability to craft a stellar book.

Fully formed characters will take our story to another level. Not all readers care, of course. I mean, some are quite happy with the easy read, the simple plot, the boy meets girl meets bad guy meets happy (or even unhappy) ending. But let’s challenge ourselves to dig deeper, to pry off the lid and look into our characters’ motivations. Let’s try to write books that readers want to read and reread as they uncover additional layers.

Few of us escape life unscathed, and if we’re story crafters, our characters won’t either.

Even a murder mystery can have unexposed layers in characters’ lives, layers that will draw readers more deeply into the story. If we give our story actors reasons for the lies they tell themselves, reasons they may not even realize, and if we then build our action around these multi-level motivations, our readers will want to know more, to understand more, to spend more time figuring things out. They’ll want the hows, wheres, and what-fors. Because if we spend story capital on peeling back layers, our readers will begin to identify not only with the messes, but perhaps also with the solutions we’ve offered. 

Let’s take a look at questions we can ask ourselves as we draft our story. Our goal is to give our characters motivation and depth, things in their past and in their personalities that will push them to behave in a certain way. We want them to face crises throughout the book that will force them to take action, but we want that action to fit who they are and the lies they believe about themselves and the world. Then we can help them peel back one layer at a time as they grow and make different choices, and each time we’ll give our readers an Ah-ha or even an Ahhh moment. Everyone has lies they tell themselves, lies that make them act a certain way. It’s up to us as writers to realize what these lies are, how our characters came to believe them, and how we’re going to help our characters grow past them. 

Our questions might include:

  • Who are my actors?
  • What are their goals?
  • What stands in the way of them achieving these goals?
  • What emotional baggage do they carry?
  • How has this affected the way they live and the choices they make?
  • What has kept them from finding healing thus far?
  • What lies have they been telling themselves that have hindered their growth?
  • What are the plot points that will help each actor learn and grow?
  • What plot points stymie their growth?
  • How do the characters and their issues affect others?
  • How will we formulate a resolution that satisfies each character’s need—both perceived and hidden?
  • Will we choose to satisfy perceived needs?
  • Or will we find a way to satisfy what’s hidden as opposed to what’s perceived?
  • How will we help our characters recognize the difference?
  • Which of these will be the most satisfying for our readers/for our storyline? 

Next month, we’ll look at specifics. For now, happy plotting!

TWEETABLES

Normandie Fischer studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English, and as well as being a writer, she’s been an editor, a teacher, and an artist. She and her husband spent a number of years on board their 50-foot ketch, Sea Venture, sailing in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They now live in coastal North Carolina, where she takes care of her aging mother. She is the author of six novels. Read more on her websiteFacebook, and Amazon.