We’ve all read those stories with flat characters. Perhaps the character is named Mary and she has a husband named Jack and a cat named Snowball. She walks through life like a permanently smiling wax doll. We stifle yawn after yawn, but no matter how hard we wish, Mary never does ANYTHING even remotely interesting.
While the imagination of the story might be somewhat enhanced by avoiding Dick-and-Jane-style cliches, that’s not where the true problem lies. The problem lies in poor Mary and her flat as a pancake character.
So how do we make sure our characters are nothing like Mary? Or, if we’ve written a character like Mary, how do we revive her?
Step 1: Throw out all of your character questionnaires.
The reason Mary’s character is so boring is not because we don’t know enough about her and need to dive deeper into her favorite ice cream flavor and who she kissed in the third grade. Which is good news for me because character questionnaires that require me to make up any number of random facts for my character stress me out.
The reason they stress me out is they ask me to make nothing from nothing with no clear direction. It’s an “anything goes” form of paralysis that leaves me flinging weak ideas at the paper and wondering if any these will ever even show up in the story. I don’t really care if Mary likes chocolate and kissed Fred behind the bleachers. And if I don’t care, my readers certainly won’t. So give yourself a break and stop digging through mounds of useless information.
Step 2: Realize that no matter what your plot is, the story is actually about your character and their internal struggle (this is true if you are writing a memoir too).
Before you even start writing your novel, it’s important that you ask some deep questions about your character. But unlike the aforementioned character questionnaires, these questions aren’t about likes and dislikes. They go much deeper than that. The questions you need to dig into to create a well-developed character are:
- What does she think she wants?
- Why does she want it?
- Why doesn’t she have it yet? OR If she has it already, why isn’t she happy?
- What does she ACTUALLY want?
- What fears or misbeliefs are getting in her way?
Let’s use flat Mary as an example. What if flat Mary desperately wants to be seen as perfect. She wants to be seen as perfect because when she was little, her mother always made her feel like she wasn’t good enough to love. Now Mary compensates by trying to be perfect all the time so she can keep the love of her mother and her boring husband, Jack. She isn’t happy though because she feels like the people who love her only love the perfect version of herself, not the person she really is.
The only exception to this is Snowball. She rescued Snowball when he was a kitten, abandoned and starving, he showed up on her doorstep after getting in a fight. He was missing an eye. She took him in and nursed him back to health. He is now obsessively devoted to her and never leaves her side. To Mary, Snowball represents what she wants: to be able to be broken and still loved (this is what she ACTUALLY wants, though she doesn’t quite know it yet).
Do you see how we haven’t even started the plot, the setting, physical character descriptions or anything else that makes up a story — and yet flat Mary is becoming quite interesting. Even poor Snowball (with his unforgivably boring name) is pretty interesting because we know what he means to Mary and why. Mary has become interesting not because we know 101 random facts about her, but because we know what her internal struggle is.
Step 3: Dig into relevant backstory for your character.
The key word here is relevant. We don’t care who Mary kissed in third grade —unless it connects to her internal struggle. So if she was kissed by Wes in third grade and he broke up with her five minutes later because he told her she was a terrible kisser, then that might be a part of the story worth digging into. Did this make Mary feel anxiety around being a “perfect” girlfriend? How did this impact future relationships?
We already know her mother played an important role in her internal struggle, so we know that will be relevant. Try sketching a few scenes of Mary with her mother that address the following questions:
- When did Mary first begin to feel like she wasn’t enough?
- When did Mary try hard to be perfect only to feel she fell short?
- What were the major turning points in her life where she felt confirmed in her suspicion that the only way to gain love was to be perfect?
These questions are obviously specific to Mary’s story, but you see how you can adjust them to your character:
- When did your character first begin to believe the lie that X?
- When did your character try to overcome this lie and fail?
- What were the major turning points in your character’s life where the lie was confirmed as truth?
By digging into your character’s past, you will uncover useful pieces of information that will help your character seem more like a real person and less like a paper doll. But remember your digging has to be relevant to your character’s internal struggle, otherwise you will find yourself going off road into the land of Who Cares and Why Does This Matter.
Step 4: Craft a plot that will force your character to face this desire, fear, and misbelief.
A cast of the most interesting characters in the world will fall flat if they are thrown into a story that doesn’t belong to them. In other words, if we throw Mary into a story about trying to become a trapeze artist, she will become quite flat again (unless, of course, we find a way to tie this ambition back to her internal struggle in some way).
Your plot must force your character to face their specific desire (being both broken and loved unconditionally, in Mary’s case). Otherwise, the story (and the character) will just wilt slowly over the course of 350 pages.
Your turn: Brainstorm plot ideas that would force Mary to wrestle with that internal struggle. Can you tell which ones fit and which don’t? Do you see how knowing your character is essential to building your plot—and how much can go wrong when you try to throw a random character into a plot or vice versa?
So—what if you’ve already written the story and now you realize your protagonist is flat and your story is a yawn fest? How do you fix it?
Well, it’s easier said then done, but you need to go back to the drawing board, starting with your protagonist. Once you figure out your protagonist’s internal struggle, you will want to take the plot idea you had and see if you can connect it to your character’s internal struggle. If not, you might need to scrap it and choose a different plot. But more likely, you will just need to make some tweaks and adjustments, add some specifics, and before you know it, your plot and character will be so tightly woven together you won’t be sure where one starts and the other begins.
Want the free worksheet? Sign up here to get access to the Inkling Secret Library where you can download resources for writing, including the free Character Development Worksheet based on these steps.