Friday, June 10

In the Flesh: Fleshing Out Flat Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Characters play just as many roles in the writing process as they do in the novel itself. Some characters spark the very idea of the story, others show up when needed to suit plot, and others are doomed to life as nothing more than spear carriers. Most of the time, by the end of a first draft you’ll have too many, and some (if not all) will be flat as cardboard. Now’s the time to start bringing them to life.

Get Real, People

Characters will pop in and out as you write, even if you aren't sure what to do with them or how they fit. After you've figured out which to keep and which to cut, you'll likely want to develop them more and make them as rich and three dimensional as your main character. Or, you might be the type who prefers to flesh out everyone after the first draft is done and you see how the story unfolds.

Look at what role each character plays in the story. Not their "the protagonist's best friend" type role, but a thematic role. For example, in my fantasy novel, The Shifter, Aylin is the voice of reason. She's the practical one when Nya gears up to dive headfirst and full speed into something she believes in (she's  a bit of an idealist). Knowing this, as I edited the draft I kept Aylin's role in mind. Her style and behavior reflected her personality and role, both as the best friend, and as the voice of reason. Her actions also reinforced this.

Motivation is a big key to creating three-dimensional characters. 

Anybody can act out what the plot tells them to, but to feel real, they need to have believable motivations for these actions. And then they need to act in ways that are true to their background and who they are. Especially if the plot requires them to go against those beliefs, which you'll likely do to them at some point, because that's just good writing.

While very little of Aylin's history is in the actual book, what is there shows how she became the person she is and gives her the motivation to be the character I need her to be. I know her story even if it never makes it to the pages.

(Here's more on know what your characters are ashamed of)

As you're going through each of your characters, ask yourself (and them) a few questions:

What role do they play?

The clown, the sidekick, the optimist, the pessimist. Chance are they're in the book to show something that relates to the story or provides you a way to show a perspective different from your protag.

Do they see themselves in this role, or do they play it unconsciously?

Someone might not know they're the wet blanket, and this could affect how they act and think. Or they might know their role and do their best to live up to it, even when they don't agree with what they think they should be saying or doing.

How do others see them?

People often adjust who they are to fit in with a group. If someone is expected to be an X, they might try to play that role even if they're a Y. The lovable clown might not express his serious concerns because he's not "the serious guy" and doesn't want to bring everyone down. Or, maybe he does speak up and no one takes him seriously.

(Here's more on creating characters)

How do they feel about how others see them?

Their level of self confidence will affect how they act. Someone who fears looking bad in front of their peers might second guess everything they do, or show off and make bad choices, or even try to be helpful and offer good ideas.

How do they feel about the world around them?

This is where a strong POV (even if they're not the POV character) comes in. No matter who they are or what their background is like, they'll have opinions about things based on that background. If their opinions differ from your protagonist, that gives you a great sounding board to discuss the pros and cons of a story point without sounding like you're discussing the story for the reader's benefit.

How do they feel about the other characters?

People will pretend to like (or dislike) someone their best friend does (or doesn't). Inner feelings will change outer actions and affect behavior. This could be a great way to have a character not speak up for fear of what someone else in the group might say.

(Here are five traits to help you create your characters)

How do they feel about the problem at hand?

This can help guide you in how they'll act and react to what's happening. People make decisions based on how they feel and what they think about a situation--and not everyone looks at that situation rationally and with careful consideration. Snap judgements, quick decisions, uninformed opinions can all influence and have an effect on what a character does. In every scene, determine:

  • What are their hopes, both in general and in the specific story problem?
  • What are their fears, both in general and in the specific story problem?
  • What won't they do to help the protagonist?

These three questions can help you understand how far a character would be willing to go -- or what lines they won't cross.

This should give you a pretty good sense of who this character is and how they feel about things in the story. You'll notice nowhere in those questions do I ask about their history or backstory. Create that as richly as you'd like, and use that when you're asking the deeper, emotional questions. Their history will be reflected in how they'd answer or feel.

Don't have a solid history for them yet? Try these questions:

Where did they grow up? Different regions and culture impart different morals and views.

What was their childhood like? People are shaped by how they grew up, good and bad.

What was the most traumatic thing to ever happen to them? This could be a strong phobia or issue to them.

What was the best thing to ever happen to them? This could affect their level of optimism or sense that things will work out.

How did these two events shape their perceptions of the world? This could help determine how they approach and solve problems.

Who is their family? We all are affected by our family, by how they shaped us and how we handle other relationships.

What was their economic background? The person who struggled looks at the world differently than the one who got everything handed to them.

What was their educational background? There could be things they just don't know, or be too ignorant or inexperienced to even think of.

What was their moral or religious background? The girl raised with a strict upbringing might rebel far worse than the girl raised with lots of freedom. Or she might be doubly conservative.

What makes them happy? The little joys can cause us to do things we might not do otherwise.

What makes them sad? Bad feelings can cause people to act badly, or not care about bad things happening.

What pisses them off? How someone handles anger says a lot about them and how they grew up.

What scares them? Anyone can be scared of the common things, but the weird stuff that freaks us out affects us much more.

You'll no doubt already have the basic physical description and general background, but try digging a little deeper into how they feel and what shaped those feelings and tailor everything they say and do to reflect who they are. And that will give you a much more rounded character.

When do you flesh out your characters? Before the first draft or after?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Great post! Getting to know characters is probably my favorite part of the writing process. I think a big problem for me is trying to cram too much of their backstory into the story (especially the supporting characters). Sometimes I need to just accept that it's not relevant and move on!

  2. You can always write it and take it out, or write it in another file. Sometimes just having it written out satisfied that need to "write it" and you can keep it out of the story.

  3. Very true. Maybe they'll turn into MC's for another book! :)

  4. What a great post! I've just started a new story and am working on getting the characters set up, and these points are so helpful. I'm saving this and will be reviewing it many times, I'm sure. Great food for thought, thanks!

  5. For me, a book is ALL about the characters. Strong characters can carry a weak plot, but weak characters can't do anything to help even the best story. I love the discovery process, which for me, tends to happen as I write. Give me a character interview sheet before I've written a few chapters and I'll run screaming for the hills.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. Great list of questions to ask yourself about your characters. Like you say, it's important to know the secondary characters and their backstory to avoid them being cardboard. I'll be referring to this. Thanks.

  7. One of the best ways to know your characters is to interview them. just asking them mundane questions will help provide an insight.

  8. Michelle: They might indeed. I hear writers talk about that happening all the time.

    Julie: Most welcome! Hope it helps.

    Terry: "Strong characters can carry a weak plot, but weak characters can't do anything to help even the best story." Truer words never spoken. I wish I'd said that, LOL.

    Natalie: It's so easy to forget about them, but they're just as important.

    Eeleenlee: This works for a lot of folks (and I just had a link to a great questionnaire the other day) but not everyone. I'm not an interview writer at all. If I don't have story context I have no clue what they'd say.

  9. Awesome post, Janet. You've put together a great checklist to keep us on the right track when developing our characters. I'm about to start the editing process and this is incredibly helpful. :)

  10. Heather: Thanks! Always happy to help.

  11. Just swung over here from the A-Z blogfest, and read your post about fleshing out the characters. Made me think, question myself. Loved it.

  12. Indeed! I just went back to my new project and fleshed out the characters quite a bit. One of them has since done something that surprised me since I now know what she's really like, and the plot possibilities have expanded too! Good post!

  13. I often flesh out my characters after plotting a few scenes or chapters to see how the story will progress. Is this all right?