Bringing a Flat Character to Life

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Have you been accused of writing a flat character? Do your characters seem boring or predictable? Let’s examine a few ways to breathe life into the people populating your stories.  

First and foremost, the key to any good character is growth and change. A character who stays the same during the entire story is flat. They literally have no arc and therefore should be altered or removed. But where should you start?

Adding the 3rd Dimension

When I wrote the first draft of my trilogy, my main character, Evie McFagan, was a lonely stay-at-home mom in a new neighborhood. I wanted Evie to have this terrifying adventure after an encounter with a killer mermaid (in human form) at the local playground. 

I wrote the first ten pages and read it to a friend. Their response- meh. I agreed. There was something missing. Evie was a flat two-dimensional character who stayed on the page. The stay-at-home mom was boring, predictable–unmemorable. What to do?

In the past, a few dynamic characters had captured my attention. Who were they and why were they so memorable? Sookie Stackhouse from Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mystery Series came to mind. Sookie is a blonde, pretty waitress who likes working on her tan. Sounds vanilla-boring, right? Twist! She’s telepathic. Total game-changer. We all know pretty blonde waitresses, but how many of them are telepathic?  

Adding a quirk, a flair, a dash of the unexpected is what readers want. We want to be surprised, intrigued, even challenged. Therefore, in the second draft of my dark mermaid trilogy, I changed my formula. I made Evie a functioning alcoholic/funeral director/mom. Upgrade! Suddenly, she had this whole persona that has resonated deeply with readers to this day. Most people love her, but some people can’t stand her disheveled, messed-up ways. Either way, she’s not some boring housewife.

Create Intrigue by Flipping Character Stereotypes

I mentioned that readers want to be challenged. We, humans, grow from adversity, from questioning the known. If you write a stereotypical character–let’s say the hunky straight alpha male–your readers might expect certain character traits. Let’s call him Travis. He works out, he collects muscle cars, he’s the boss at work. But what if Travis gets his physique from Jazzercise, not lifting weights? What if his passion is baking cupcakes, not polishing his Trans Am? What if Travis is a professional assistant and not the boss? 

By throwing curveballs at your readers, you challenge them to think outside the known. That’s far more interesting than Travis, the weight gym manager, who just pulled up in his Camaro.

Note-whatever fun quirks you throw into the stew of your character building, make sure this person demonstrates growth or change over the story. Otherwise, you’re right back to where you started, stuck with a boring 2-D character. 

Listen to your Darlings

Characters might seem like they’re your little puppets. You pull the strings, they dance. But they’re not your puppets. I’m not going to lie, it’s odd when your characters start talking to you–and, trust me, they will. It’s your job as a writer to listen and to ask questions. Over time, they’ll start to tell you what they want to do, not what you think you want them to do. 

Be observant and open-minded to your characters’ specific needs, wants, and desires. What’s their motivation? Would they actually want to further the plot in the manner you’ve laid out? Or would that go against their moral fiber? Are there aspects of their backstory that have paved the way for their current actions/decisions? 

Leave your own instincts and biases at the door and let your characters guide you. You’ll find yourself with a far more interesting story if you do. 

For more on Character Development vs. Arc, read here.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website:

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