If you’re a plotter like me, you likely spend a lot of time figuring out what will happen in your story. Each event links into the next in a web of cause and effect that ties in subplots and twists painstakingly designed to take your reader on a journey. What happens, though, when you take this finely crafted plot and drop into it characters that are not fully formed?
Whether you are writing a piece of flash fiction, a short story, or a novel, strong characters are what drive the plot. Ultimately, stories are about people. How they react to the situations you throw at them will determine where your plot ends up. How they come across as living, breathing, and feeling people will determine whether your reader is invested in the story.
But how? How do you create actual people? This is a natural and favourite part of the writing process for some. For me, this is one of the more challenging aspects. I love to tackle the plot. I am a mystery writer, after all. I love figuring out clues and hints and which actions will result in what consequences. The people in my story take a lot more hard work. Some come to me fully formed, while others remain nebulous and frustratingly in the shadows. If only I could sit down with them and have a good long chat or watch them in their natural habitat.
In my efforts to improve my skills in creating believable, unique, living characters, I’ve come across some helpful advice. I’m far from an expert on the topic, but I’ve put in some of the work to curate this advice, and you may as well benefit from the results.
How to Write People with Depth:
Like real people, fictional characters have opinions, hobbies, and passions. Give your characters actual passions; let them get excited about something. Have their views and desires be at odds with the other characters. Think about what knowledge the character would have about specific topics and what skill sets they possess. Consider, too, what knowledge they lack that must be acquired throughout the story.
Write a scene where your character is speaking excitedly about something they are passionate about. Have another character shoot them down with an opposing opinion. What is the result? How do they feel, and how does that inform what they do next? Will they fight their case, or are they easily dissuaded?
✒️ Set a timer for 15 minutes and see where it takes you.
Observe the people around you and note interesting mannerisms, speech patterns, verbal tics, qualities you admire, and flaws that repel you. Combine these in new ways to create new people. Don’t make your good characters too good or your bad characters too bad. Each character should have both redeeming qualities and flaws.
You’re in a coffee shop, waiting for your character to join you. Are they late or early? What do they first say in greeting? How do they sit? What do they order? Do they have a little subconscious habit that annoys you? How do they interact with the other patrons and the staff? How do they react if the barista gets their order wrong or an unruly child spills a drink on them? Write yourself in the scene and the conversation you would have with the character. Afterward, read their dialogue aloud and see if it sounds “like them.”
✒️ Set a timer for 15 minutes and explore the conversation.
Don’t neglect your secondary characters. They need to be fully formed people with opinions and motivations of their own. Every character in your story must want something, and all the better if what they all want is different. The conflict that arises from characters with opposing desires is key to a good story.
Write a scene from the perspective of one of your secondary characters. How do they experience the events differently? Where do they start the scene, and where do they end up? How are they affected by the actions of your protagonist? How do their actions affect the outcome for the protagonist?
✒️ Set a timer for 15 minutes and toy with the interplay between your main character and your secondaries.
Give all of your characters an underlying motivation. What drives their decisions? This motivation doesn’t have to be explicitly stated; the character doesn’t even need to be aware of it—it can be something in their past that pushes them in a particular direction throughout the story. Give them a strong central trait, but also give them a secondary attribute that runs counter to that, creating internal conflict for a more complex character.
Imagine your character revisiting a location from their past—maybe a childhood home, their old high school, or the place they went on their first date. What memories come flooding back for them? What feelings are stirred up? How is this place significant to the person they are now? How has the location changed, and how is it still the same?
✒️ Set a timer for 15 minutes and explore how your character has been shaped by this past location and the events that took place there.
Throw your character up against a problem that is not in their wheelhouse. Maybe they are lost in a city they’ve never visited before. Perhaps they have started a new job for which they’re under-qualified. How do they handle it? Who would they ask for help, or how would they go about learning the required knowledge to solve the problem? Are they tenacious, or are they inclined to give up when they don’t know what to do? Do they “fake it ‘til they make it,” or are they honest about their shortcomings?
Above all else, the real key to writing people with depth is to persevere. Hone your craft by reading widely and becoming a keen observer of people. Write your people into scenes and scenarios you concoct, and let them reveal their character to you. It feels like a lot of work, but that’s what writing is, and you wouldn’t be here in this last paragraph if you didn’t have a story to tell that you are willing to put the work into. So what are you waiting for? Shouldn’t you be writing?