Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Creating Characters with Depth

One of the ways of adding depth to your stories is to make sure your characters have depth. You need to go far beyond having a character with a basic set of emotions coupled with a physical description of the character.

Your character needs history. What has happened in her life to make her who she is? What’s her relationship with her parents, siblings, children, friends, bosses, teachers, and others?

No one is perfect, so your character needs flaws. How do these flaws play into the plot? Do they create additional conflict, internally or externally? Even if your antagonist is the most evil person in the world, your character needs some good qualities to show their humanity. Obviously, your protagonist needs good qualities too. Otherwise we won’t care what happens to her.

Your characters need to have inner conflicts that the people around them can’t see or don’t know about. Everyone puts on a front or a face that they show the world, which is different than how they view themselves. We need to see the discrepancies between the character’s inner self and the self they show the world. When we talk, we don’t always say what we mean—the same thing has to happen with your characters from time to time—where you know they’re thinking one thing, but saying something different. Once again it becomes the clash between the inner self and the outer self.

These are just a few things to watch out for when adding depth to your characters. Below are a few of my favorite books that provide even more valuable insights on creating characters with depth.

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card - Provides invaluable perspectives on how to develop and use your characters to make your stories come alive.

The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus – While this book primarily focuses on how to add humor to your stories, it also covers many aspects of creating multi-dimensional characters in terms of their flaws, humanity, and unique perspective on the world.

Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon - From listings of physical attributes to character actions and the way they dress, this is a good reference or resource book for helping you define the unique characteristics of your individual characters.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Open for Interpretation

Have you ever read a book only to have it end without telling you how it really ended? I hate it when that happens. When you invest all that time in a book, you want some closure. While those kinds of books often bug me, there is something that can be learned by that approach to writing. By not disclosing all the final details, the author leaves it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the missing blanks. I think it’s interesting that a skilled author often has different readers filling in those blanks with very different personal interpretations.

While I’m not espousing that writers shouldn’t bring closure to their books, I do believe that a story has much more depth and intrigue when it is crafted in a way that throughout the story its readers derive diverse meanings from its storyline or message. To do this, an author has to refrain from hitting the reader over the head with preconceived themes or messages. The author has to keep from always impressing their own personal judgments on their characters’ behaviors and attitudes. The author has to avoid the temptation to tell us everything the protagonists think about themselves, others, and the events of the story. In other words, the author needs to leave some things open for interpretation by the reader. The author needs to let the readers discover their own meanings from the story.

This can often be accomplished by simply showing what happens in the story versus telling what happens in the story (See Show Your Readers the Way and Make Your Story Come Alive). A basic example of this would be instead of telling us that a Joe is angry, hurt and wants revenge on Bill because Bill stole his girlfriend, you show us Joe’s reactions from body language to action. Does he yell and scream, threatening Bill, or does he smile and feign friendship in order to better set up his revenge and keep Bill and the reader guessing at what Joe is really up to?

The point is that a story becomes much engaging and memorable when crafted in a way that readers are allowed to discover their own personal insights and interpretations from the story.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Story Depth and Balance

Sometimes writers will argue what’s more important, the characters or the plot? The truth is there needs to be a balance between the two. Plot driven stories on their own are flat and have no depth, while character driven stories on their own can often wander with little direction or with nothing really happening, making them a bit tedious and boring.  A quality story will typically have both an action driven plot and a character driven plot, with each feeding off each other.

The action driven plot is sometimes known as the external or surface plot. The character driven plot is often referred to as the internal plot. It deals with the characters’ emotions, relationships, internal struggles, the inner workings of their minds, and motivations.

For example, in the Harry Potter books the external plot usually involves Harry trying to beat Voldemort, while the internal plots deal with Harry trying to understand who he really is as he tries to learn about his parents and the strange connection he shares with Voldemort. The fact that the external and internal plots often intertwine and at times are at odds with each other makes the story that more compelling.

Best-selling author, David Farland once said, “A well plotted novel is really a dance between character and event.” So, how do you choreograph this dance? As you write, you ask questions like the following. Why do the characters care about what’s going on around them? How do the actions of the plot affect the character? What are the characters motivations to act? How do the characters act and respond to the events of the plot?

The important thing to remember is that for your novel to have the ideal depth and staying power, you need a rich set of intriguing characters that have to deal with an array of internal struggles while fighting to come out on top of the more obvious physical battles that surround them.

If you ever have a chance to attend one of David Farland’s writing workshops, do it. In addition to being a great author, David is a great writing mentor and teacher as well. He truly knows his stuff. You can find out about his workshops at www.davidfarland.net/writingworkshops.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Avoiding the "Too Slight" Label

Have you ever been told by an editor or someone else that your story is “too slight” and wondered what that meant? What does it mean when a story is slight? When editors say a story is too slight, typically it means that the story is too flat or one dimensional. It can also mean that the premise is too weak, your characters have no depth, or that there’s simply not enough going on in your story. Often the too slight label occurs because the story focuses primarily on the action of the story or primarily on the story’s characters. In other words, it doesn’t work on multiple levels.

Some things to work on in order to avoid the “too slight” label include, crafting your story such that readers can get multiple meanings from the storyline, developing an engaging blend of both external plots and internal plots, and creating believable characters that are multi-dimensional.

While I’ll talk in more detail about these subjects in future posts, what are some other things can you do to create stories with more depth and avoid the “too slight” label.