Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can get to the end of a drafted novel and realize that something is off about our characters. They may feel distant, or like they only fill generic roles–the “love interest,” or the “best friend.” This can be hard to identify as a writer, because to us, the characters are alive, leaping and living in our minds. But we can detect symptoms of it when our readers don’t seem as invested in the story as we are, or when we have a hard time feeling what our characters would do next.
This is a common problem. As writers, when we start putting together stories, we can actually find it helpful to grab a stock character. Using that stock character as a filler can free us up to explore a piece of plot or worldbuilding that we are more excited about. However, if we never go back to fill out those characters with personal motives, interests, strengths, and weaknesses, it can actually trip up that plot we are so excited about, and keep our readers locked outside of our world. Even with fantastic action or ambiance, a reader can’t truly enter a story until they’ve empathized with our characters.
And it’s not just our readers who are locked out. We as writers also cannot find our best story until we’ve gone back to deepen those characters. Only when the character and plot become intertwined can our story glide forward in a breathtaking way. This is why fleshing out characters before drafting the novel can be a game-changer. So let’s explore some methods to get us started.
Method 1: Each Character’s Goal Should Be Distinct from Those of the Other Characters
Giving each character a goal that is different from anyone else’s is one of the quickest ways to invite depth into your characters. These unique, individual goals should be found in almost every character. For example, if a furry-footed protagonist named Frodo wants to destroy a magical ring, the people he meets should have an array of individual goals: to attain power, to impress their brother, to get something to eat, to prove their father’s counselor wrong . . . Their goal can be anything, as long as it is strong. Giving each character a unique goal automatically begins to flesh them out as someone with their own needs, priorities, backstory, and world view. Their unique goal cannot exist in a vacuum, and so the individual circumstances and personality of that character naturally come forward as the story continues.
A character’s unique goal also creates a host of opportunities for twists and unexpected tension. If a side character is only helping Frodo so he can prove his father’s counselor wrong, he will not be a simple sycophant. He will be a nuanced person who will not blindly follow our protagonist’s lead. If the counselor suddenly approves of Frodo, will our side-character become suspicious of Frodo? If the counselor dies, and our character needs to step up and steer his father in the right direction, will he abandon Frodo? Or will he disagree with Frodo’s plans if they will take him too far away from the distrusted counselor and his father? Giving each character their own, individual goal creates realistic relationships, communication, and tensions, even for characters who are on the same side.
Method 2: That Unique Goal Should Unavoidably Affect the Protagonist’s Goal
Once you know this distinct goal, all you have to do is make sure it directly plays into (either helping or hindering) the protagonist’s goal. Making the two goals intersect is what will keep the characters and the plot organically fueling each other. For example, if Frodo’s goal is to destroy a ring that grants great power, another side-character’s goal may be to gain enough power to protect his city. If he moves towards that goal (which is what a character will always do unless their character arc changes their goal), he will try to take Frodo’s ring. If Frodo moves towards his goal to destroy this powerful ring, the side-character will do all he can to stop Frodo. The character’s goal should feel like a seesaw–any action they make towards their goal naturally and unavoidably affects the protagonist’s goal, and vice versa. If one goal moves, the other is also moved.
Giving each character their own goal, and then making sure that goal naturally affects the protagonist’s goal, funnels every emotion and action straight into the plot. It’s a double-win: as characters deepen, so does the plot.
These first two methods are powerful tools to get you started on a deeper, stronger story. It takes the load off of you to push the plot forward, and gives it back to the simple mechanics of the character’s goals. Part 2 of this series will give two more methods–one of which will streamline and intensify your plot in one fell swoop. Feel free to subscribe so you’ll be the first to know when it posts!
Have you tried these methods before? What else do you use to deepen your characters? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!