Making Flat Characters GREAT Characters

Good characters can make or break your fiction. How can you be sure your novel’s people are multi-faceted and believable? Check your draft for the following:

Are they one-trait wonders? If a character can be summed up in a single word (and no, synonyms do not count as multiple words), there isn’t much to them. They don’t have depth, and that’s a problem.

The Fix: Identify what personality trait most defines your character (Compassionate? Reckless? Intelligent?). Now identify a place where the character can display the complete opposite of this trait. People are complex, and no one is 100% anything 100% of the time. They can be kind most of the time, but still have the ability to be mean in certain cases. Maybe they’re usually reckless…but in one area of life they’re scared to take risks. Someone could also be the smartest person in the room—but there must be something they don’t know. This is how you create faults and discover their limitations. (Also, try to avoid stereotypes. Give us contradictions we don’t expect.)

Do they have agency? Is the story happening and your character just happens to be there, or are they actively changing events? Do they have a life of their own, or is their life only serving to better/worsen that of another character? Your primary characters have a voice; their words and actions should matter.

The Fix: If a character lacks agency, you have two options. One, you can completely remove the character or diminish their role. If they don’t matter, they shouldn’t be considered a “main” character or even “secondary”. Two, you can revise your story so they do matter. Depending on how far into your story you are, this may take a lot of work! Find where they can make a difference—something only this character can do—and make it so!

How much do we know about them? Does the reader get told their whole life story, or only their life in the present? This one requires a balancing act, but usually less is more. You want readers to want to know more about them—but they can’t have that sense of curiosity if you tell them everything from the get-go.

The Fix: If too much is your problem, cut out as much backstory and extraneous “quirky/fun fact” details as you can. Ask yourself: “Does this matter?” If knowing this piece of information does not 1) affect events in the present, 2) affect our understanding of the character in the present, or 3) contribute to the story’s theme or message…then cut it. On the other hand, if everything is purely in the moment, search out those moments where you can insert some history or glimpse of the character’s life outside of the story—but only if it matters.

It’s hard to analyze your own writing for some of these, so be sure to get a fresh pair of eyes (or a few!) on your story and ask them what they think of each character. Readers NEED good characters to give them the desire to read on…so make sure you’ve done your best!