Easily add depth to characters

posted in: Creation, Writing | 0

I frequent the web a good bit, and sometimes I can’t help but engage in conversations.  Some of my surfing takes me to writing sites and electronic water holes where would-be authors show up.  Every now and again they ask something that I chime in on.

This post is a copy of something I threw up in response to someone who said (s)he felt like their stories lacked depth.


Try this exercise:

Every single character in your story, even the walk-on extra parts that only show up for a line or two of dialogue … give each one something odd/unique/notable.

  • This guy limps as he walks across the room to hand the court order over. “Where’d you get the limp?” “Skateboarding accident.” “Skateboarding?” “Yeah, I roll on the weekends, didn’t you know?”
  • That girl’s makeup looks like it was put on with a trowel. “Hey Jill, looking, uh, yeah.” “I know, isn’t it great? I copied it from Jennifer Lawrence’s look at her last movie premier.” “Yeah, uh, good job. Jill. About that (plot) thing you were going to tell me about?”
  • That other guy was listening to headphones at high volume and had to be shaken back to awareness when people walked in to have a conversation with him. “Jim. Jim. JIM!” “What? Oh, sorry. Hey, have you heard the Nuclear Fuzzballs?” “No, I’m too busy to go to clubs.” “Well they’re awesome man. You should get out more.” “Right, I’ll put that on my list after I get done saving the (city/world/whatever).”
  • This girl is shy but when she does talk says brilliant things that make the other characters burst out laughing or stare in horror (but a few seconds later they realize she’s right). “What do you think Sally?” “(Sally panics) What? What? Uh … I was just thinking maybe, like, you could just lock the door so he can’t make it to court on time.” “But that’s illegal … wait a second, he can’t even file charges until he gets out of the room … and that’ll give us time to talk to the judge first … Sally you’re a genius.” “(Sally mumbles incoherently and retreats quickly)”

Look at Howard Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s the “classic tech geek” character, yes? But he’s not; he’s got depth because of the quirks he’s been given. Genius creative inventor, yes. Wealthy is still even a normal part of that stereotype. But Howard’s also handsome, a sharp dresser, a skirt chaser, charming, a drunk, a connoisseur of fine things, flamboyant. Those qualities give depth to what would otherwise be the stereotype (boring) character.

It sounds stupidly easy, but it works. The more major the character is, the more stuff that should be dropped in about him/her. And all those little things give life to them.

The security guard who witnesses the murder isn’t just a witness; he was watching America’s Next Top Model on his phone because he does drag-queen shows on the weekend.

The librarian who gets the special ancient book for the hero isn’t just a librarian; she is the most disorganized librarian anyone’s ever seen with no possible order visible regardless of how hard you look at her ‘library’, but can find any book in the collection in less than a minute as long as you ask her first. And every time she fetches one, something strange happens (creatures emerge, shit falls over, strange sounds go off, etc…)

Specific example: Harry Potter 1, Ollivander. The scene is “Harry goes to get a wand.” Ollivander doesn’t just hand Harry a wand. Every wand Harry picks up at Ollivander’s urging does fucked up stuff, but none of it seems to alarm or bother Ollivander in the slightest even as Harry grows increasingly startled by everything that happens as he tries wand after wand.

That one small thing made that scene interesting, when it would otherwise simply be “And then Harry went to the wand shop and picked a wand out.”

My latest novel, Grift Girl Gone, launches on 11-April.  Fans of con artists and caper crimes might find it interesting.  Have a look.