Well-rounded characters drive a story. Without them, all we have are cardboard cutouts of roles that need to be filled. When these roles (hero, victim, villain, mentor, etc.) are filled with well-rounded characters, the story is complex, rich, and intriguing. The characters come to life and feel like your next-door neighbor or the clerk at the grocery store. Many aspects go into making a character come to life. They are as complex as you or I, have the potential to royally screw up, or experience great growth. It is because of who they are that makes the story being told relevant to readers.
Flat characters, on the other hand experience little growth and are not complex. In fact, they’re usually called “one-dimensional.” Unfortunately, this happens when the author doesn’t know the character well enough. Now, knowing your character doesn’t mean filling out the 101 character questionnaire – nobody cares what she carries in her purse, or that her favorite color is blue. Unless a major component to her character is that she’s family oriented, readers don’t need to know that she’s the third of seven children, either.
I’ve found that another reason a character stays flat is because the author is too focused on one particular trait. A common issue, for example, is talking about the eyes too often. The heroine might have the most beautiful blue eyes in the world, but readers don’t need to be pounded over the head about it. Mentioning it once or twice, as a way to move the story forward, will suffice. Think of 50 Shades of Grey (if you’re brave enough to admit that you’ve read it). How about Christian Grey’s affinity for running his hands through his hair? The trait is mentioned often as a way to show when he’s frustrated, but it doesn’t go much deeper than that.
So what makes a well-rounded character besides a few simple quirks and an amazing back-story? One way is to dive deeper into those quirks and that back-story. If your character can’t have any of the food on her plate touching, why not? Is she OCD? Did she accidently mix some foods once and it was horrible, so she doesn’t want to experience that again? A lot of times it’s the why that creates depth of character.
Complex characters also have complex feelings, wants, and needs. Show us the push/pull of opposing characteristics. A character that is outgoing and charismatic, yet lacks any real connection with others is a great example, or you could have a character who is always on time, but never prepared. Along with opposing characteristics, characters should make tough decisions, because after all, it’s action that reveals who they really are. All people have this push/pull internal dialogue with themselves about certain things. Someone trying to lose weight might really want to eat the triple decker hamburger, but the struggle comes with whether they should. A child knows he shouldn’t draw on the walls, but all that blank space calls to his inner artist. Give your characters decisions that butt heads with their want (to draw on the wall) and their need (to obey his parents). Whatever decision they come to will reveal their many layers.
Readers need to connect with the characters to care about them. That caring leads to wanting to know what happens next in the story and why it matters to that character. Flat characters remind them that Mr. Darcy is made-up, at best. Worst case scenario is that the characters will be so unrealistic the reader will put down the book. Create well-rounded, fully dimensional characters so that the readers will feel something for them.
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