Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Ever been told your Characters are flat?

I've always wondered what makes a character three-dimensional, multi-dimensional...alive! I mean, if they're alive in my head, how could they not be on the page?

I'm thinking it all comes back to the dreaded backstory. We're told to cut, cut, cut, all that old stuff out, but what we really should be told is to select, select, select, all that's alive in that backstory and make sure it's present in an entertaining way.

If we look at a three-dimensional character from the perspective of their three dimensions: Physiologically, Sociologically, and Psychologically, then we know backstory plays a huge role in creating a believable, vibrant character. What has happened in their past can affect their appearance (scars, broken nose, and even how they choose to dress). Their social background and present state will also affect how they talk, their mannerisms, intelligence, etc., and those two combined with all that has happened to them in life thus far drives how they think, what they believe in and why they don't value something in particular.

I also believe that to have a well rounded character, they have to have a past, present and future they're striving for (think goals here). If we can weed through all that we know of our characters backstory and draw out the most pertinent elements of their three dimensions and slip them into our story in an entertaining way (think dialogue, beats, short narratives) at exactly the right time, then who lives in our heads will also spring to life on the page for others to empathise with, hate, believe, and even love.

How do you create a multi-dimensional character on your page? Does backstory play a role?

Surrendering to Him,



Jill Kemerer said...

Perfect timing. Last night I was thinking about my current WIP and realized how my heroine interacts very differently with the hero as opposed to her mother. I need to show that better through dialogue and beats.

P.S. My beats are getting stale. I need to kick it up a notch.


Jody Hedlund said...

It's funny you should mention this today. Last night I actually finished my word count early and so had a few minutes to pick up a book and read. Yes, I read! Wow, what a news flash!!

Anyway, I realized as I was reading (and critiquing!) depth was lacking in the story and characters. I could just feel it, but couldn't put my finger on why. I think you nailed it on the head today with your post! The characters were all acting in a vaccum. They lacked internal reflection and the background necessary to bring them vibrantly to life.

Now the trick is to make sure that I can bring my characters life, right? It's so easy to pick out the mistakes of others, but then not to make them myself!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Jill, I find beats fun to work with. I'm always trying to make them do at least double duty. Tell who's talking, reveal character, transition, etc. You really want to make the most of everything you put in a novel, that's why they're so difficult to write well.

I hope you have fun multi-tasking those beats and getting creative!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Jody, it is always so much easier to spot it in other peoples work. I totally agree. It's the whole balancing thing and choosing the right tidbits to include and when they'll make the most impact. It's all so challenging, but hey, maybe by working our brain so much we'll avoid getting getting brain-dead in old age.

Katie said...

What a great post! I like how you changed cut, cut, cut to select, select, select. That is SO true! Before I even start writing my novel, I delve very deep into my character's background. :)

Jessica said...

Ha! I was told my characters were underdeveloped so I don't have much advice for this. I think you sound on the right track though. I need to develop my backstory more.

Interestingly enough, in the comments section on the Seekers blog, Mary C. mentioned having a flat character. You should check out how she rounded her character out. :-)

Terri Tiffany said...

I was told that for my first book years ago. I didn't know what it meant back then!
Thank you for another great post and thank you for taking the time to pray for my situation here in Florida. I appreciate you doing that!

Jennifer Shirk said...

Well, I've never been told my characters are flat, at least not yet.
Although some of my characters have been hated. Maybe they had too much personailty? LOL!

T. Anne said...

I was told once from Donald Mass he didn't care about my characters. I went back made sure the reader could feel for my MC and deeply sympathize with her plight. I'm reading the Fire in Fiction his new book and it tells how to do just that. It's riddled with clear examples from other authors and how they accomplished this as well.

Jessica said...

Hi Eileen,
Well, I tried to e-mail you and realized your address wasn't in my account! Weird. LOL
So I just wanted to let you know that my story was rejected so as of right now I don't need a beta reader. But I have another one I'm going to revise so if you're still open in a few months I'd love for you to read that.
Thanks so much!
Have a great day. :-)

Georgiana said...

Great post! My problem is more that I don't have backstory, and I have to figure it out as I go then go back and add it in during the 2nd draft because it didn't work during #1. Like T. Anne, I started reading Fire in Fiction too. The first few pages alone are worth the cost.