Creating memorable characters, and putting them through their paces to discover how they grow and change, is one of the most important things you will do as a writer.
Designing a fantastic world with magic or tech is important if you are a science fiction or fantasy author. Creating fast-paced plot action and dynamic tension is important if you’re writing a thriller. Making monsters, building suspense, and evoking fear are all important if you are writing horror. But, your story will always fall flat if you haven’t created multi-dimensional characters that your readers care enough about to follow on their journey.
I’ve written about building character backstory and the intersection of plot and character extensively. You can check out these posts here: Building a Character’s Backstory; The Intersection of Plot and Character Development.
Today, I want to take a slightly more nuanced approach on character portrayal in your storytelling. If you ask yourself the following three questions, you’ll give your readers a multi-dimensional view of your cast.
- How does the character see herself?
- How do other characters see him?
- How do you want your readers to see them?
It’s in the subtleties.
Let’s use physical appearance as an example. Perhaps your main character laments her scrawny arms when she’s trying to drag a new piece of furniture into her building, But, perhaps her love interest describes her as slender or willowy or elegant. The reader gets a glimpse into our character’s psyche, and her own less-than-positive body image. Then, seeing her from another perspective, rounds out the reader’s view. One isn’t necessarily more accurate than the other. Taken together, however, the reader has learned something about both our insecure gal and the guy who’s crushing on her.
Another example would be a character who behaves in a way he thinks exhibits confidence, but is interpreted by those around him as cocky. The star quarterback wins the championship. During the postgame interviews, he never mentions the key catches made by his wide receiver. Perhaps readers have enough information on the QB’s traumatic childhood to still root for him, but are tempered by his words and the reactions of his teammates. We suspect a humbling event in his future. We feel the tension building between our guy and his pals.
Reader perception matters.
The answer to the last question – how your readers see your character – may surprise you. It will also provide you with valuable information during revisions. Readers may not respond to our character the way we’ve intended, and that’s a problem. What if you’ve written a dashing hero and your readers think he’s a jerk? That actually happened to me with the early draft of my first novel. I loved my main male character. He was born straight out of my happy imagination! Who wouldn’t love him? Turns out, about half my beta readers. They responded to him in a way I didn’t intend, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to fix him before my book was published.
Viewing characters from a multi-dimensional perspective will help bring them to life with authenticity and depth.