Characters need depth.
Three-dimensional characters are what keep readers reading. They’re what makes your writing process more fun. And they make your writing process easier.
Every indie author’s career is built on the strength of its characters.
Why do I say that?
Think of the last novel you read. What do you remember about it? The main character’s name? The author’s name? The plot?
Chances are, you remember the character’s personality the strongest. If you liked them, you’ll be wanting to spend more time with them. Even if you don’t remember the book’s name, or the author’s name, or even the plot of the book. Even if you found the plot kind of lacking.
If you love a character, you’ll keep going.
Think of how many people kept watching Supernatural for Sam and Dean, even though later seasons turned into a dumpster fire. (I gave up in season 12, if you’re wondering.)
Now, I’m not saying you should be writing the last few seasons of Supernatural. But you should strive to create characters your readers care about as much as Supernatural fans care about Sam and Dean.
Because that, my friend, is how you build your author career.
But what if your characters need work?
What if you’re not sure if your characters need work?
Here are some surefire signs your characters need some added depth:
1. You don’t know what to do with them
Three-dimensional characters are really easy to torture. It’s fun 😈
When your characters are three-dimensional, it’s easy to know what to do with them because everyone has their flaws. Whether that’s pride, fear, or something else, it’s your job, as a writer, to exploit their flaw(s). That’s basically the cornerstone of all character-driven stories. Even some plot-driven stories are the same.
Say you’ve got a character with stage freight, but they want to be a singer. Their first obstacle is to get over that (internal, fear). Their second could be to find a recording contract (external and internal, fear and pride). Then deal with the consequences of being catapulted into the spotlight (internal, fear).
Yes, fear is used a lot. Why? It’s a super easy one to exploit. And we all have it.
A character without a fear of something—whether that’s being onstage, spiders, or cotton wool—just isn’t realistic.
Even people who say they’re not afraid of something are afraid of something.
Pride is a good one to use, too, but can be harder. It’s a lot harder to overcome pride because there’s no such thing as a selfless act to pride. Which means anything they do is all about them. Because of that, unless you really put them through it, they won’t show any demonstrable growth. And it’s that growth that your readers want to see by the end of your book.
Circular character arcs are a thing, but be prepared to piss people off if that’s what you choose to write. Because I promise you, you will.
2. Dialogue feels flat/doesn’t flow
If your characters have depth, the dialogue between them—regardless of how many are in the scene—will flow.
When it doesn’t flow, you have to consider why.
It’s usually flat characters. And I don’t mean that they’re meant to be flat and that’s their role in the story.
I mean the characters in your scene are lacking depth.
3. They don’t react
The cornerstone of realistic characters is how they react to what’s happening around them. Consider this super common example from my editor friend, Alexa Whitewolf: a character dies. In the next chapter, everyone has moved on. Even if that character was significant.
Would that happen in real life?
Of course it wouldn’t!
I was a wreck for at least six months when my nan passed away. I shouted at people; I snapped at people, and I hated the world. The only thing I enjoyed was spending time with my fictional friends.
It isn’t realistic for a character to not react to losing a loved one.
Even if a side character loses a loved one, you still need to reflect how they feel and what they’re going through.
I did this in The Ghost’s Call by the main character’s friend having several meltdowns about what was happening in her life. The main character gives her the benefit of the doubt because of what’s going on around her.
Emotions drive our reactions.
Everyone—even psychopaths—have emotions. If you don’t include emotions in your writing, your characters will feel like cardboard cutouts.
It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, who your audience is, or what point of view you’re writing from. If your characters don’t feel emotions—or you don’t explore them in enough depth—your characters will never feel three-dimensional to your reader.
4. Their life is too easy
I’m sure we’ve all met someone who’s life just seems so. Fucking. Easy.
And when your life is falling apart, that can be really frustrating.
Nobody wants to read about a character whose life is easy. Just like their real-life counterparts, those characters are annoying.
And, let’s be honest, nobody’s life is easy. Those people whose lives appear easy are working hard to make it look that why.
A story will be much more interesting if you explore how your character works super hard to make their life look easy. And how doing so leads to them having a breakdown and revealing to the world just how not-perfect they really are.
Everyone loves watching a car crash, but nobody likes to be in one.
It’s why soap operas and telenovelas are so damn popular.
They’re over the top. Lots of drama goes down. But it’s reassuring to know that your life isn’t that bad in comparison, isn’t it?
5. They’re perfect
Are you perfect?
Is your best friend perfect?
Are any of your family members perfect?
If you answered yes, well, I’ll wait while you take off your rose-tinted glasses.
Nobody is perfect.
Which means none of your characters should be, either.
Even Mary Poppins has her flaws. Like how damn annoying and chirpy she is.
You can give them flaws, you can give them fears, you can give them insecurities. But you need to give them something that’s a negative and/or relatable trait to make them human.
Maybe they’re haunted by something that happened when they were a child, or right before the book began.
Or they act without thinking and it gets them into trouble a lot.
Or they’re like Chidi from The Good Place, and they think so much they don’t act. Ever.
Whatever their fear or flaw or insecurity is, you want it to be related to the plot and their goal somehow.
A cocky character getting his comeuppance; a terrified character getting her moment to build her confidence.
The possibilities are endless.
And, using this method, you’ll always have ideas for future books too, since dealing with one issue usually leads to another 😉
(Ever been to therapy to fix one problem and unearthed ten more? That’s what I’m talking about.)
There you have it!
When your characters have depth, your books are easier to write, your dialogue naturally flows, they react in a natural way, they feel, and they feel human.
The more depth you give your characters, the more ideas you’ll have not just for this book, but for future books you write too.