Compelling fictional characters are flawed. They make mistakes. Sometimes they’re huge jerks.
But readers aren’t interested in a primary character who’s just a huge jerk. Two-dimensional characters strip your readers of the opportunity to choose a side. Readers won’t root for a main character if they feel like you’re backing them into a corner to do so.
Give your characters, and especially your antagonist, an inner wound to fuel their less-than-perfect behavior. A wound adds depth to your characters’ relationships and creates fascinating — and heartbreaking — moral gray areas.
Where do our characters’ wounds come from?
Just like real-life humans, characters accumulate wounds from all sorts of physical and emotional trauma. Their behavior and relationships are shaped by the way they process — or refuse to process — these experiences.
Past traumatic events:
One of my favorite characters I’ve written lost a teenage child to a car accident. This unaddressed trauma makes her a cold, controlling, unempathetic mother to her surviving child. Accidents, divorce, loss of a loved one, or even a terrorist attack can give your characters deep scars that cast a shadow over their actions.
The mom who lost the child? She gave my main character, the surviving child, her wound. Abuse or neglect by a trusted adult will create a deep wound in a child.
Abuse, assault, friendship betrayals, and bullying all inflict trauma that influences character relationships.
Physical or mental injury or disability:
Does your character have an injury or disability that makes them feel like an Other? Is it something they can hide, and thus fear being found out? Or is it something obvious that makes others view them differently? Anything that makes a character feel not normal will create a wound they must overcome.
Poverty, housing insecurity, systemic prejudice, and ongoing abuse will all color how your characters view the world around them and affect every decision they make.
Keep the wound proportionate
No matter the source of your character’s wound, it should feel relatable to the reader. It also needs to be sufficiently painful to justify the character’s behavior. My grieving mother character became psychologically abusive because of her unaddressed trauma and fear. She wouldn’t behave this way if she had simply almost lost a kid in a car accident.
Likewise, avoid characters who wallow in self-pity over first-world problems — unless you want to create an eye roll-inducing, unlikable character. And don’t use a wound to excuse the inexcusable, either.
Readers don’t need to see the wound in great detail
Even if your character’s wound isn’t part of the story on the page, your knowledge of it will inform your writing and make that character’s actions more believable. In other words, you need to know the source of your character’s psychological pain, even if readers only get a hint.
For a type of wound you haven’t experienced personally, try to research its effects on real-life people. Could a reader in a similar situation to your character relate to her choices and actions, and maybe even guess at the underlying cause?
Give readers a choice
In my first draft of the mother-daughter story I mentioned earlier, I wrote the mom as a two-dimensional villain. By the final draft she was complex, tragic, and relatable. Readers begin the story wondering why she’s so controlling and sometimes even cruel. By the end, they love and empathize with her, even if they still don’t absolve her of everything she’s done.
Give your readers a chance to get to know your characters and choose to root for your protagonist. Shoving that choice down a reader’s throat will spark a rebellion and flatten your story. Plus, complex, wounded characters are more realistic. Real life offers us few two-dimensional villains. Craft your fiction to imitate the messy, complicated, and often traumatizing reality of human relationships and your readers will become fans for life.