Questionable: Character Depth

Deb Blake asked:

Character depth has always been an issue for me, although I’m getting better at it (which probably explains why I’ve finally gotten published). How do you make your characters so REAL?

It happens through writing and rewriting. I know there are people who swear by those character sheets where you fill in the blanks, but that never works for me. I couldn’t tell you what color eyes most of my characters have because that has no impact on their stories or on their lives. If I thought about it, I could tell you their worst fears, but a lot of the time that’s not what the story is about. So for me, it’s writing the story and seeing how the character emerges.

If I had to analyze it, I’d say that you need develop a character in two directions–length and depth.

Length is character arc over the length of the story. She’s this character at the beginning, and then THIS happens and she changes as she fights her battles, and that leads to THIS happening and greater changes within her, which leads to THIS happening and so on until the end when she’s a completely different person from who was in the beginning. It’s the arc of those changes, how and why they happen, that creates a rounded character.

But depth is important, too, even though it doesn’t move like plot and character arc. The character’s stable life changes as the plot changes and she changes: her choices in friends, in living arrangements, in what she obsesses over, in what kind of dog she adopts, whatever; think of it as the wallpaper of her life, the patterns that surround her, so that as she moves through the plot, developing her character as the story lengthens, her relationships and choices shift and become clearer and more complex, deepening her character. The wallpaper becomes more detailed, if you will, giving her a richer background and a more rounded character.

I’m always surprised when I read a novel and realize that I have no idea what this character does for a living. Or no idea of where he lives and what that place looks like or what his or her relationships are with people who are not antagonists. A well-rounded character has a life that’s there on the page, not taking up a lot of real estate but present because that’s how life works. Nobody falls in love and then concentrates on that and that only 24/7 until he or she gets engaged. Nobody races to save the world without phoning home. Nobody fights the monster without keeping an eye out for his or her kid. The complications of life shape character, create boundaries and barriers that him or her three-dimensional. And that’s even before you get to how much weight we give to how other people see the character, which can’t be present if there aren’t other people in the cast besides the main combatants.

So how do you know about the character’s life wallpaper? A lot of it shows up while I’m doing early drafts, but I do a lot of discovery, too. Music and collage are big. Why does this song seem to be something she’d play over and over and this song something she wouldn’t even hear? Why do these three pictures of different women look like her to me, and these three other pictures of the same three different women not look like her? I like taking a photo that’s almost right and changing it until it is right–lengthening the face or changing the color of the hair–and I definitely like combining photos and drawings of different people to make a composite in my head. There’s a time while I’m writing that I call Sticky Time, which is when everything I see and hear seems to tell me something about the book and my protagonist: She’d like that dress I saw in a magazine, she’d love that song I just heard on TV, she’d say this to that scrap of conversation I over heard, and so on. Collage is particularly good for that, finding pictures, scrapbook paper, stuff that makes me think, “That’s her.”

But mostly it depends on those two major things: how her character arcs through the events of the plot, and how her world reflects who she is and how she changes. Story event and story world combined to create a dynamic character.

Edited to Add:
So I wrote this yesterday and then left it in draft form so I could give it a couple of hours before I came back to edit it. There are people in my life thwarting me at the moment, and I had to settle their hash (do not give me estimates for an air conditioner I do not want and omit the estimate for the oil tank that must be removed because you are WASTING MY TIME), and I had to clear some of the stuff out of the house, especially the living room which is now collage central and therefore is covered in small bit of paper, and there were a few other things, and the entire time I was just . . . ITCHY. Not externally, but mentally. I’ve been brainstorming this collaborative project with one of our collaborators (the other two are up to their asses in alligators), and we’re making great progress, talking about the world, and I know about my character, Catherine, aka Cat, a waitress/cat burglar in 1910, and since it’s a romance/adventure/fantasy, there’s her future guy, Harry, a gangster/undercover cop, and I know that there’s nothing magic about Cat, that she’s extremely down to earth except when she’s on a rooftop, very pragmatic, very young (another Mare), and that Harry’s not quite so young, rising fast in the force, and . . . I couldn’t get past that. I had pictures but they weren’t right. It made me itchy.

And the thing is, I know I won’t know these people until their story is finished. That’s just how it works. But there is thing that happens, something triggers something in my brain, and suddenly, they come alive and I can hear them talking and I know what they’re thinking, and the other people around them, and that’s the thing I have to get to. And it’s really hard because you don’t know what the trigger’s going to be. Pictures, yes, music, yes, could be anything, so you just have to keep open, sticky time, and pray that you get it.

Agents of SHIELD is really good this year, and the cold open for this week’s was truly brilliant, Jemma dressing to go to work to this peppy retro pop song and then she gets to work and it turns out . . . well, that’s a spoiler, but it was great. And the song was fun. So I bought it. No big deal, I’ll use it some day. Then for the last couple of nights I’ve been looking at pictures of people from 1910, trying to find somebody that looked like Cat, in the sense of personality not actual physical looks. I pulled a lot of stuff for her and for Harry while I was at it, but it just wasn’t right. Then tonight, restless as all hell, I clicked on the song, and bang, there it was. Obviously the lyrics are not right for 1910, but the sense is, and the bounce. There’s a lot of darkness in this story, and that’s what was screwing me up. Cat’s not dark. She doesn’t have enough imagination to be dark. She has no magic powers. She’s not the reincarnation of an Egyptian Queen or the long lost heir to a throne or anything but an ordinary waitress/cat burglar who needs to find a way to heat the church bell tower she’s been squatting in or she’ll freeze to death over the winter. All the dark magic that’s going on around her that the other women will be suiting up for, Cat just wants it out of her crypt because it’s going to blow her secret hideaway. She’s practical. If they had HGTV in 1910, Cat would have been calling them for HVAC advice. There no drama in Cat. But god help her, there’s plenty around her. And then that gave me Harry who lost about ten years in age and became her analog, the young cop who thinks he can do anything. I kept playing the song over and over and pulling pictures off the net to get my composite, different faces with the same personality because what I want isn’t what they look like, I don’t care what they look like, what I need is who they really are, what makes them bounce on the page.

Up above, I said I use music and collage. Cat’s theme is “God Help the Girl” by God Help the Girl (and thank you, SHIELD). Cat and Harry will look like this after they’ve been together for a couple of years:

00006-Cat & Harry

But the way they are right now is a composite of these personalities/attitudes/worldviews:


Come on, how much fun is that?

Now, please God, let me keep them alive in my head until I can get their stories written.

36 thoughts on “Questionable: Character Depth

  1. Well, you definitely do know the colour of Cat’s hair!
    I’m looking forward to the finished story. Please don’t let all these people who thwart you interfere with your sticky time. From what you’ve written about it before, I understand it only lasts for so long.


    1. Actually, I don’t know the color of Cat’s hair. That’s not what she looks like physically, it’s her personality mash-up. Toni’s protagonist has red hair, so I think Cat’s is probably brown. It’s not something that has any impact on her life, so I don’t care.


      1. Yep. And mine’s hair color is going to nearly get her killed, so it’s relevant that it’s flame colored, and bright.


  2. I love what you said about triggers. For me, writing is so intuitive. I can’t scientifically generate the good stuff. I can sit at my desk for days and plot out story details, but the rich stuff…the juicy stuff….that I have no control over. I’ve done it enough that I now trust the process, but there are times I wait for the triggers to strike something–and I get anxious. What if it doesn’t come? What if there’s nothing there? Whatever notes I’ve written up don’t mean anything until something flares and brings it to life. But it always comes. Of course it comes. Stuff’s going on deep down where creativity bubbles and boils, and I just have to let it do its thing so it can send it to my greedy little hands.


  3. How funny. I once got the entire origin story of a character in my car from a Seether song. It came on and the hero was in my head talking to me, spilling his guts. I couldn’t pull over to get to a piece of paper fast enough. Now, whenever I hear that song, I’m not only instantly right back there, but scenes from the book play through my mind like a music video for the book. It’s the weirdest thing.


    1. It’s the same way for me, and with the collage, too. I hear the song, see the collage, and I’m back in that world. Oddly enough, if I think about the story while I’m playing a mindless game like solitaire or sudoko, after awhile the game will put me back in that world, too.


  4. God Help the Girl has some other fabulous music out there, which I did not know until I followed the youtube link and played the playlist. I found the lyrics to this one really evocative:

    “you dress like the 50’s
    you watch I love Love Lucy
    you’re failing every category
    of what a modern girl should be”



  5. Length & depth is a good way to put it. As a writer, I agree with both. Also agree that the rewrite stage is important in that process.

    As a reader/viewer, though, one of my issues with writers making a character feel real is whether or not they then sustain that character. Lately I’ve been seeing things where writers start out building a fab character, one I feel I’m getting to know, then they go and break that character for the sake of plot. Not once, but over and over again. And I think: “Why bother making the character that particular person if the poor thing will be bent like Gumby every time there’s a call to create tension/conflict?”

    So for me the bit about character development is key. Making sure the character grows/changes in ways that make sense for that individual. Because creating a real character is important, but keeping her real is what keeps me invested in her story.


  6. This is me so much: “I couldn’t tell you what color eyes most of my characters have because that has no impact on their stories or on their lives.”

    I’m always getting editing notes to add more description, because it just doesn’t matter to me what the characters look like. It matters what they do (and say). I know I need the description, that readers want it (and even I want a little of it as a reader), but it’s so irrelevant to me that I struggle with it.


    1. Same here! My first beta reader always wants to know so many details. I can tell her, but I prefer not to put it all on the page because I think the reader should create her own picture – that’s what I do when I read books, anyway.

      A good example are the various movies of “Pride and Prejudice”. The characters look so different every time. Yet they sure don’t look the way I imagined them.


  7. This is a great question, Deborah, and a fabulous answer, Jenny. Thank you so much, and I love your character brainstorming. Music can always put me back into my story.

    I’ve always struggled with the depth aspect of the character. The plotting and character arc are okay, but I tend to skim over the ordinary every day things. After reading this I’m beginning to realize that it is a problem in my world building. When writing a contemporary romance perhaps I take the world building as a given to some extent (as opposed to creating a paranormal, or historical world) and yet I know every story needs specific world building. Mine are sketches, lacking that richness and depth that can help define the character. So I’m going to head back into my WIP and see what I have omitted this time. : )


  8. You keep saying that eye and hair colour are irrelevant, but as a reader I want to know those in order to be able to visualize the character. I’ll go searching back to find them if I’m partway into a story and they aren’t clear to me. Without this colour, the characters are grey and indeterminate. It’s not that I want great swathes of description, but just enough to make a sketch. Sometimes a writer won’t even make it clear what race a character is – and again, I want to know so my picture of them works. I don’t want to get to the penultimate chapter and find my image of them has been radically wrong. It’s probably part of world-building rather than character in a way: part of the scenery. But it does matter to me.


    1. I agree that it needs to go in, and the editor is right to remind me I’ve forgotten to include it. It’s just that — usually, anyway — that stuff doesn’t affect the character’s choices, the goal, motivation and conflict, so the description is the absolutely least interesting thing for me, which is why I struggle with it. Also, a lot of the very best description is less about color (or other objective traits) than attitude or other subjective aspects of the person. I wish I were better at capturing that elusive stuff, and then maybe no one would care so much about the objective stuff.


    2. You’re kind of out of luck with my stuff then. Somebody falling in love with another character might notice eye color, etc, but otherwise, it’s just not going to show up in the story as it’s told. That old “she stopped to look in the mirror and noticed her big blue eyes and corn-colored hair” just doesn’t work.


    3. You know, hair and eye color are often on the cover. If the artist gets it wrong, I get cranky. I do kind of miss it when the cover is one of those modern things that don’t feature people — or, god help us all, one of those awful things that cuts off the woman’s head. But in general, if the author is describing a character doing interesting things, I tend to default to one of the people inside my head.

      I do need to know weight, though, because in my head, I’m about 160 pounds. Not exactly a gymnast or whatever, but fairly spry. If the heroine is seriously overweight, or very fit, I need to know that (please show me!) as soon as possible. I can imagine both, but neither is my default character.

      I remember reading Bridget Jones’ Diary in the British version, and thinking a stone was 20 pounds (she prefaced every chapter with a weight report) — I thought, “hooray! A woman like the (real) me! Oh, this is going to be so interesting!” And then it turned out (after I got suspicious and a googled it) that a stone was NOT 20 pounds, and Bridget Jones was not morbidly obese, but morbidly obsessed with weight. I still like the book a great deal, but I remember the shock more than the plot.

      It will (generally) not work if the author or the character comes out and tells me, “I weigh 120 pounds.” Ugh. Sounds too much like bad porn. But, the author must know that, and convey it in her movements, her food choices, her activities — and I should barely notice it as a reader.


      1. Now, I’ve never thought particularly about weight. It’s interesting how we each co-create the story as we read, and which elements are essential to our process.

        As a complement to your Bridget Jones experience (and, by the way, the film ruined it by making her obsess in pounds, which of course make no sense to a UK viewer unless you’re brilliant at your 14-times table), I can be marooned in no-man’s-land, with no clue which American city I’m in for ages – subtle location references going right over my head.


      2. I think one of my favorites with weight was Bet Me. Min’s weight is never revealed and it always spoke to me that she was someone who struggled with weight but we don’t know which weight. So many women at so many different weight points struggle with feeling attractive and beautiful, rather than just lumps of flesh (myself included at times, not currently though) that having a character who also had that in a real way was fantastic for me.


      3. The problem is that weight is subjective–one person’s fat is another person’s healthy–and by itself is meaningless because muscle weighs more than fat, and the height enters in. The description I remember (although I don’t remember the book) was one the hero got from the heroine’s driver’s license when she’s unconscious. After noticing that she has a great butt and fabulous breasts, he looks at her license and sees that she’s 5’9″ and 125 pounds. It is possible to be 5’9 and weigh 129, but you won’t have boobs and a butt without serious plastic surgery. My kid was 5’9″ in high school and people kept trying to feed her because she was so skinny; she weighed 140. So a weight number is meaningless, but worse, it perpetrates that you need to be super-thin to be a heroine. Another reason to leave detailed description in the white space.


  9. See, as a reader, I look at your collages, and I can “see” Cat and Harry.

    She’s smart, practical, sassy, can fix things, looks for the good in others, but not any kind of pushover.

    He’s smart, confident, determined, sexy without having to work at it, snarky.

    She brings some softness and compassion to him, because she doesn’t think he’s an ass like everyone else does.

    He brings confidence to her, because he knows she can take care of whatever is thrown her way.

    I don’t know if that’s where you’re going, but that’s what these pics say to me.

    Plus, hot guys in suspenders…


    1. Well, kinda (g). She has a lot of confidence, she’s just so single-minded she misses a lot of things. And he’s confident with some arrogance, but he’s too smart to let it get in his way. They’re both focused on their own goals, and when those goals cross, they have to work things out because they’re kind of stuck with each other since their in the middle of each other’s battlegrounds. As they’re showing up now, they’re not even that much aware of each other as anything other than somebody standing in the way who might be talked (or blackmailed) into helping. I think it’ll be the third story before they look at each other and go, “Oh.”


  10. THANKS, Jenny! I’m not a playlist or collage person, but maybe I need to play around with that a little more. I’ve started writing up a character description that is less about looks (although I write that down too, and I’m finally using pics if I can find them) that about connections with family and friends (and pets of course), and fears, and desires, and pet peeves. It is helping.

    Also, I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that this is something I’m always going to have to work on in revisions, adding depth based on feedback from my agent and first readers (“It feels like it is missing X.”) and figuring out what I need to add. Apparently, this is just my process, this layering in depth later, and I may have to learn to live with it, although I still hope to get better!

    Thanks as always for the great advice. And I agree with you about the Shield open–amazing, and I loved the song. So glad it kicked something loose for you!


    1. The hardest thing every time is to remember that you do not know your story until it’s finished. I look at the beginning of a book and thing, “Oh, hell, I don’t know any of this stuff and this is all really trite and obvious and I suck as a writer.” I just have to keep reminding myself that in the beginning, it’s all suck.


  11. Great question, great answer.

    I also appreciate authors who leave physical descriptions vague because it lets me picture what the characters look like on my own and is something else that allows me to feel I’m participating in the story. I’m feeling much better about my own work now that I’ve stopped worrying about too much detail and research.

    When I read that Cat lives in 1910, the very first image in my head was of Evelyn Nesbitt. I think that’s her in the pic you posted. What a life that stunner had. Ragtime, indeed.


    1. I think the real trick is to give just enough, but not too much, detail in the very beginning so that the reader can see the character–the person isn’t just dialog floating in the air, and then make the character’s choices and dialog and mannerisms and actions so specific to her that she’s easy to see in the moment. She embodies that space fully, because of who she is, why she cares, what she wants, and how she interacts with the world around her, that the reader starts building the fully formed character in their minds from those actions.


      1. Yep.
        It’s also why it’s so much easier to write romance with both lovers POV. They can look at each other and see significant detail.
        For example, the first thing Harry really notices about Cat is that she’s picked his pocket.


  12. This is really very interesting.

    I like that you leave the reader with some gaps to fill in. By having an interaction of some sort on the page, we can deduce a character trait.


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