WEEK 4: CHARACTER PART 2: MULTI-LAYERED CHARACTERS
- develop a multi-layered character with admirable but also flawed attributes
So you did one of those 50 question, get-to-know-your-character quizzes, so you’re sorted right?
Wrong! Those things are fine, but they’re mostly superficial and most readers are not.
They want to explore deeper, to go below the surface and into the characters. They want to live the story themselves, and how can they, if the characters are 2D. For the full immersive experience, readers must get characters which is are multi-dimensional and multi-layered. That have their biggest flaws and fears and insecurities exposed.
We have to rip their souls open and expose them on the page. But how can we do that, if we the writer doesn’t even know the depths of our characters.
So we’ll start with the myth – you need to have a likeable character. Nope.
But we are drawn to a character who we admire in some way – who we can see has something that we don’t have. They don’t need to be someone you’d be friends with, but they do need to have qualities or skills or make decisions that makes them worth reading about.
If we look at Katniss, from The Hunger Games, she’s not always likeable, but boy do we admire her. She breaks the law every day to hunt for food for her starving family. She volunteers to take her sister’s place in what is likely a death sentence in The Hunger Games.
Admirable qualities are often ones which we could all possess, but are shown by actions that we wish we would take in those situations…but may well not. Be honest for a moment, would you do what Katniss did, in that situation? If you would, good for you. If you wouldn’t, that’s understandable, too. But that debate we have in our head is another reason we connect to that story. It’s a universally relatable situation – do you choose to take the place of a loved-one, destined for certain death? Is your love that strong?
And for Katniss, it is. But it’s not enough to show that love with a few rules broken on hunting. Cleverly, in this book, the author gives us the maximum show, not tell, of this admirable quality. And after that, we are putty in Katniss’s hands, despite how questionably she treats some people in other situations in the books – which we’ll discuss more in Fears and Flaws.
But admirable qualities are wide-ranging and they don’t need to be as big or impactful or heroic as Katniss, it can be someone who is usually miserly, or penny-pinching, but secretly gives half their earnings to a children’s hospice, or a child who always knocks on his elderly neighbours door to check they’re okay and to talk to them, or the girl who sees another child, alone and friendless in the playground, and goes over to talk to them.
Admirable qualities can be small, but sometimes the smaller ones make just as much impact.
But a great character is not just about those surface actions, it’s about everything that has happened before to make them this way. It’s about the past, experiences, memories and events in their history that help mould who they have become.
Fears and Flaws
Every one of us is absolutely riddled with fears and flaws. We may resist this notion, we may ignore those parts of us which we perceive as flaws, we may even perceive our flaws as strengths. Ultimately, a great character will have at least one or two of these (ideally more) and they should be chosen with great thought – because these will become the very things that act as internal conflict and obstacles to our characters emotional journey.
They will be the focus of change in your character arc, and ultimately, they are often the thing that your character NEEDS!
It can act as a yardstick of your characters growth to have a scene near the start showing this flaw/fear and then a similar one near the end, where they overcome it. For example, let’s say character is afraid of the dark. Very common. We show this at the start of our novel. Then the rest of the novel will focus upon our character being exposed to incrementally difficult situations where they have to face the darkness in some way, before they will finally overcome that fear and are no longer afraid of the dark. This is character change in its simplest form.
But if we don’t know what our character’s fears or flaws or misbeliefs are before the story starts, and potentially how they got these, we lose a lot of potential material for our story. Let’s say our character is afraid of the dark because they were trapped down a dark well for 2 days when they were a child. That little added bit of history and context gives us so much material to potentially apply in our story.
We will absolutely have darkness, but also maybe water, too in that scene at the end, where they overcome their fear. We may even put them down that same well. And only be overcoming that fear will they be able to rescue the cat and save the day!
Again, super simplistic, but so are many of the great stories when you break them down and dissect them like this.
Misbeliefs are also important – what does your character believe that is, from a different point of view, wrong? What can’t they see that everyone else around them can? What can you include in your story that will force them to face up to this misbelief?
Having your character correct a long held misbelief is a strong indication of change and growth that will leave your reader feeling much more satisfied than anything external that has been achieved.
Let’s say our character believes they can never fall in love. Or that they can do anything significant. Both these misbeliefs come from their past – something has happened, and probably many things have reinforced it – and the story is about how they (gradually) come to the realisation that the misbelief is exactly that. When we spoke of needs on the previous chapter, this is what we were referring to. They won’t know they need to correct their misbelief, but the story forces them to – we confront them with every possible challenge to overcome that will force them to change. This is the basis of great character growth and satisfying storytelling.
So, we’re starting to crack the surface of our character – we’ve considered their admirable qualities, their fears and their flaws. We’ve also considered misbeliefs, so we’re beginning to get into the inner issues of your character. But we won’t, and shouldn’t stop there.
Let’s consider where to start our story – this is something which almost no novelist gets right on the first (or even the fiftieth go). Writing the opening and changing where you start is about the most common thing you will do with your manuscripts.
Simply put, the place to start is the point (or just before) where your character is forced to change in some way. We want to read about characters who have been challenged in their status quo, where their fear or flaws are poked at, or where their misbelief is questioned.
Right until the point of the start of your story, your character will have happily been going about their life with their fears/flaws/misbeliefs, but no longer. We’re now going to throw everything at them – we’re going to haul down that curtain of familiarity and force them to change. And when you do, your story really begins.
As a final thought, think of a few things to hold back on. Is there a secret your character has? Something they lie about, even to themselves? Is there something we can find in their past that has led them to be the person they are at the start of the novel, and that we can gradually have discovered or unravelled during the novel, and in doing so, begin forming the chrysalis of character transformation?
Be specific – the more specific you are with this secret or past event that informs their current character, the more you can utilise that as you plan your story later.
It’s Writing Time!
Write down a list of five admirable qualities. Then a list of 5 fears/flaws/misbeliefs. And lastly, a list of potential events or secrets from your characters past that they don’t want to reveal or remember.
Now, ignore those. And write the lists again, this time thinking of more unusual qualities or fears/flaws/misbeliefs or even weirder secrets from their past.
And then do it again, each time delving deeper into the life of your character. Don’t cheat on this exercise – keep going with this – the more often you repeat, the more unusual and original the results. You’ll get past the first few, stereotypical qualities/fears/flaws/secrets that we think of for characters. If you keep going, we get into the depths of your and your characters psyche and don’t be afraid for it to look too dark or unusual – that’s good – we all have darkness as well as light, and morally grey characters are by far the most interesting ones.
And none of this is wasted – you can mix and match all of these across the various characters in your book – or the next book. It’s always worth the time to dig into the depths of your characters.
Still struggling with your character(s)?
Why not sign up to our tutored character course, WriteCharacter, where you can work on your made up people with star tutor, Emma Read, author of Milton the Mighty.