Compelling characters have many layers, like an onion. (Or as Donkey in Shrek might say, like cake.) As writers, our job is not to peel back layers but to create them. Without these layers, your characters will feel like flat cardboard cutouts. With them, you’ll have rich, faceted characters that your readers will love. Here are some easy ways to build layers around your characters’ shells.
1. Choose Conflicting Values
Everyone has a set of values that they live by, even villains. However, in fiction, just like in life, these values often conflict. Value conflicts will give your characters compelling internal struggles that speak to the human condition and capture your readers’ attention.
To start, choose three values. That way, you’ll probably have at least two that conflict. The third value can just be neutral. Character values can include, for example, family, recognition, and safety.
Spoiler Notice: 13 Sins
In 13 Sins, Elliot Brindle values family above all. Value 1: He feels he needs money to take care of everyone. Value 2: He has a mentally challenged brother, Michael, to take of, a pregnant fiancée, and his bitter father. Value 3: He also longs for the freedom only money can provide.
When Elliot loses his job, he is desperate for money. So when his cellphone rings with an offer to win a million dollars for being on a reality TV show, he says yes. After completing a series of challenges, Elliot realizes he’s broken the law. If he’s in jail, he won’t have either his freedom or the ability to take care of his family. However, winners get their records expunged so he keeps playing.
Elliot’s final challenge is to kill a family member. The Elliot at the beginning of the movie would have refused, but now, two truths shatter his “family above all” value. Truth 1: His brother Michael is also a player and has no issues killing him. Truth 2: Their father played this game years ago and killed their mother in order to win. So now he must either give up and die or kill a family member.
2. Decide How They See the World
Philosophers have said for millennia that there is no reality, that the truth lies in how you see the world. Psychiatrists call this the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think the world is evil, you will see evil, and if you think the world is good, you will see good. The same is true for your characters.
A character’s past filters their present. A character’s backstory contributes to how they see the world, but it doesn’t just make the world look evil or good. It also affects the details they notice. An architecture student, a secret service agent trying keep the president safe, and a vacationer from abroad would see three different versions of the same city. This is true even if they are all standing next to each other and observing the same buildings and crowds.
In The Voices, Jerry is a man with an innocent view of the world who works at a bathtub factory. He lives in a nice apartment and everything goes great for him. He also has two pets, a cat and a dog, who talk to him. Viewers realize something is off about the movie (and Jerry) because everything is too perfect. It turns out, Jerry’s more than “off”; he’s homicidal. He has pills to help with the hallucinations, but after he takes them, we see a broken down, filthy apartment.
To Jerry, the worst thing about the pills is that his pets refuse to talk to him while he’s on them. This fuels his decision to stop, which only makes his problems escalate as he dives deeper into denial and commits more murders. As the story gets darker, the rest of the world looks brighter and happier. It’s rare to get a look at two completely different views of the word through the same set of eyes, but The Voices manages to pull this off.
3. Play on a Fear
Real people have fears, so it’s important that your characters have some too. It’s tempting to give your characters common or random fears, like being afraid of heights. However, if your character never has to climb something high, you’ve missed an opportunity for character growth. Readers love it when a character has to face their fears to get to a happy ending. It gives them hope that they too can overcome their own fears.
It also shows change. If a character is afraid of something in the beginning that they are not afraid of at the end, then readers understand they’ve changed on a deeper level and won’t be going back to their old ways. Alternately, a character who never gets over their fears does not get the thing they wanted.
Spoiler Notice: Sorry, Wrong Number
In Sorry, Wrong Number, Leona Stevenson’s fear is having to take care of herself. As the daughter of a wealthy man, she was used to having things done for her. Now that she’s a married woman and expected to stand on her own two feet, she can’t handle it. She takes to bed with symptoms that are psychosomatic. As long as she’s sick, no one expects her to be an adult. But once she overhears a murder plot, she realizes that someone’s life is counting on her.
If she doesn’t learn to overcome her learned helplessness, then someone is going to die, and it will be her fault. She tries her hardest to get help, but only by phone. She still thinks of herself as a sick woman unable to get out of bed, still letting her fear run her life.
Eventually, she gets so frustrated, she gets out of bed, but at that point it’s too late. The murderer is already in the house – her house – since it was her the murderer was hired to kill. (Her husband had had enough of her “illness.”) If she’d gotten over her fear any earlier in the story, she wouldn’t have been such an easy victim.
4. Discover What They Need to Learn
Just as every character has a fear, every character also needs a flaw. Their flaw is closely tied to the lesson they need to learn. After all, a story is nothing more than a lesson in character growth. If a character has no flaw, then they have no room to grow and change.
In the beginning of the story, the character has a certain way of looking at the world, and it’s usually flawed. Their viewpoint could be too naïve, too cynical, or too black and white. Their flaw is a fundamental issue with their mindset that affects every moment of their waking life. For example, take a person who runs away whenever something becomes difficult. Running away is their flaw, and the lesson they need to learn is to stay and face the difficulty.
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is a miserly man who believes money is as important as oxygen (his flaw). Because of this, he doesn’t believe there’s enough to go around, so every penny is precious to him. Yet, he doesn’t enjoy the benefits of money either. He eats simple fare and is always looking for ways to cut corners even in his home life (such as not heating the entire house).
What Scrooge needs to learn in order to overcome his flaw is that money is simply a tool and that some things are more important than money. He needs to learn that friendship, love, and kindness give you a far richer life than money alone. Once he learns that, he becomes a happier man, truly enjoying his life and his money and seeing it as a way to bring joy to the world.
5. Create a Defining Moment (or Two)
In real life, our personalities represent the culmination of all our experiences. In fiction, writers rely on a defining moment. This is an event that happened to our character before the story started that shaped the character’s entire outlook on life. The moment doesn’t need to be huge and dramatic like abuse or kidnapping. It could be something like when one of the parents walked out, or the time in childhood when the main character’s sister stole the main character’s doll and the parents took the sister’s side.
Our brains remember negative things more often than positive ones. Adding a negative defining moment creates a partially broken character who has a chance at redemption. Of course, main characters are not the only ones who need defining moments: all characters should have them. Even if they are never mentioned in the story, it shapes a character’s personality.
In Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Dexter is a rare example of two defining moments for a main character. Even better, one of them overlaps with a minor character’s defining moment. The first is a killing spree that his biological father committed, an early childhood memory revealed through reoccurring dreams about blood and death. This childhood incident gives Dexter a serial killer’s heart.
The second is a conversation with Harry, the cop who adopts Dexter with plans to “save” him from his heritage. Once Harry realizes Dexter’s urge to kill is too strong to overwrite, he changes the trajectory of Dexter’s life by teaching him “Harry’s Law”: only kill those who deserve to die. This changes not only Dexter’s life but also Harry’s. As a cop, Harry believes in rules and laws. Yet he loves his adopted son and wants to see him safe and happy. Neither of them is the same after this talk, and that’s what makes this moment “defining” for both of them.
Knowing your characters in depth is the easiest way to create richer, more compelling characters. This prevents stereotypes, cardboard cutouts, and flat, uninteresting stories where readers don’t care about the outcome. It also helps you drive your story forward by asking the question, what would this character do next? When you know your characters well enough, the story unfolds in front of you. Your readers are going to love it.
Devlin Blake is an accomplished fiction author and writing coach with over two dozen published books including both fiction and non-fiction under a variety of pen names. Devlin’s signature writing system enables author clients to write faster and produce high quality work while holding down a job and enjoying life. Using this system, Devlin was able to create four novels in under a year with more ease, rich characters and robust story lines. Devlin is a sought after coach and consultant specializing in the horror/suspense writing genre. Get a complimentary copy of Devlin’s Plotting Alchemy, an easy way to plan a story.
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