Creating interesting characters with depth is hard. It doesn’t take long for your audience to discover everything there is to know about a shallow character; adding depth will keep your reader engaged and invested as they discover that a character has more to them than just their surface characteristics. Here are three tools you can use to make deeper characters.
A worldview is an intrinsic part of any character. Without it, your character is going to seem pretty darn blank. What color tint are their lenses?
There are a variety of available worldviews. Here are a few examples:
- Nihilism: A character who believes that nothing matters holds a nihilistic worldview. They don’t follow any specific system of morality, and they aren’t very concerned about consequences that affect themselves or other people. Frequently, their goals are short-term and revolve around personal gratification and whims.
- Religion: This can be a belief in a specific religion or general spirituality. If a religion and its rites are central to all of their actions and beliefs, then they have a religious worldview.
- The strong rule: This worldview centers around power and using it on others. This can give a character a predatory aspect; they’ll use their worldview to justify taking what they want from those who can’t defend it. Similar to nihilism, they’re not interested in consequences that affect others. However, they’re interested in their own payday, which sets them apart.
Worldview is the soul of a character
A character’s worldview fundamentally defines who they are. Worldview affects perception; hence, it determines how a character processes information and reacts. If you pare down a character, removing all of their actions, backstory, and fluff, all you have left is the worldview.
Start with a worldview and then decide how your character acts. This will make them more consistent and stronger because their actions will align with their core concept. Additionally, it will empower your character and give them agency. Even if they react passively, their actions will come from inside, instead of simply being convenient for the story.
Finally, your worldview will determine how well they get along with others. Characters with opposing worldviews are unlikely to play nice. It is unrealistic to expect a monk from an ascetic order and a hedonist to get along perfectly, for example. Having differing worldviews can help determine which characters will hinder the protagonist and which will help them.
Major events can change worldviews
People change, and sometimes major events can alter someone’s entire worldview. However, switching worldviews is a big decision, and should play a major part in the plot of your story.
Say we have a cop that staunchly believes in the infallibility of law. What if he determines that his entire precinct is riddled with corruption? One of two things will likely follow.
First, he could lie to himself. Instead of recognizing factors that challenge his worldview, he downplays or outright ignores them. This can be interesting, but it may break realism if he ignores something too obvious or too big for very long.
Another option is he could change after a big revelation like that. Once he decides that the law isn’t infallible after all, he has more decisions to make. Perhaps he becomes corrupt himself. Or it leads him to realize that legal agencies need oversight, and he begins to pursue government reform. Once a character realizes their beliefs are wrong, their actions will inevitably change.
A dream is what your character desires most. If a genie came up and offered them three wishes, their first wish would be for whatever they dream of. You can tell quite a bit about someone by their innermost longing.
There are many thing people can yearn for:
- Freedom: This is the dream of a person who is bound, physically, socially, magically, or some other way. They can’t pursue any other dreams until they are free, so they become focused on that one desire. Freedom can be from a specific person, an authority figure, or a condition that afflicts them.
- Forgetting: This is the dream of a person who is pained by memories they carry. They might have been involved in a war or other traumatizing event; or perhaps they feel guilt over past misdeeds. Forgetfulness will bring them peace.
- Prosperity: This is the dream of a person who feels a great sense of lack. They want to improve their life in some significant monetary way. It could be a better job, a different home, or a specific possession that a person believes would improve their situation. A specific dollar amount isn’t necessary for a person to dream of prosperity; the desire for more material wealth can happen just as easily among the rich as the poor.
Dreams are personal
If the worldview houses the soul of your character, then dreams are a window you can peek in. Dreams are incredibly personal, as they highlight a deep desire for the character. Most people won’t share their dreams with everyone they meet.
If the character does share it openly, then it’s more likely to be a goal, which is less personal and more solid than a dream. If the character is taking active steps toward a tangible end, then it’s a goal; but if they merely think about doing it, it’s a dream.
You can discern more about someone by their dreams than by their goals. If someone tells you they aim to get a job, you can surmise that they enjoy eating and would prefer not to live in a cardboard box on the sidewalk. Now, if that same person reveals to you that they dream of being a tyrannical dictator of some impoverished nation, and they’d like to build their palace on a foundation of gold-plated toddler skulls, you just learned quite a bit about them.
Dreams become goals
Goals are more common for stories, but dreams frequently play a part. Someone dreams of a lofty ambition they can’t really reach, but it never leaves their thoughts. Then, something happens that makes their dream seem reachable. Suddenly, the dream is now a concrete goal, and the story becomes about the pursuit of it.
The other way a dream can change is by dying. If it happens in the middle of the story, then it becomes a turning point for your character: do they forge ahead without that guiding point? Or will they choose a new path, and a new dream. If you choose for the dream to die at the end of your story, your character may become a fallen hero. Instead of spreading the lighthearted message that you can achieve your dreams, such stories show the audience that repeated failure and hardship can kill them.
Pretty much everyone has something they keep from others. Secrets are even more personal than dreams. Fear is a form of personal weakness, and secrets are often kept out of fear.
Secrets and the reasons behind them are quite varied:
- Failures: Years ago I botched making it to the Washington State Spelling Bee by being unable to spell “rumormonger”. Is it shameful? Kind of. Does it define my everyday life? Not really. That being said, it’s not something I generally share with people. From that you can probably extract that I’m a bit arrogant, dislike personal failures, and take pride in my vocabulary.
- Past Crimes: Some people have done some pretty awful things. Bodies in attics, shallow graves, and acts of betrayal are all examples of major crimes. A character will go to great lengths to keep this secret hidden due to its severe nature.
- Identity: Some people lie about who they are to create an illusion they can present to others. Their secret could be their real job, abilities, beliefs, or heritage. Discrimination is often a motivating factor in keeping these details secret.
People keep secrets for good reasons
Secrets can tell you a lot about someone, but you’ll learn more by puzzling out why they keep that secret. If someone steals from a friend, they could fear being found out for several different reasons. If the friend is abusive, the character would fear retribution, but if it’s a particularly close friend, they’re more likely to fear losing them.
Perceptions are crucial when it comes to secrets. People believe that revealing the secret will cause a negative response in others. In fact, most people don’t have dark secrets; common secrets are mundane and kept out of shame. Not every character needs skeletons in the closet. The secret should fit the story and the relationships it involves.
Revealing secrets is risky business
A secret changes a situation whether it is revealed by accident, honesty, or a third party. When that happens, the character has a choice: do they try to deny the secret, or do they acknowledge it? Either way, a few different things can happen once their secret becomes known.
For starters, revealing secrets often leads to conflict. The character kept the secret for a reason. After the revelation, it’s not uncommon for an altercation to follow, be it physical, verbal or legal. Secrets can test, damage, or even destroy trust. Most of the time, revealed secrets will change a relationship’s dynamic in the short or long term.
On the other hand, revelations can also be liberating, and free someone from fear. Big secrets can weigh down a character, but honesty empowers through choice and can create trust with other characters – if the relationship can recover.
By working with these three things, you can know more about your character. Start with the worldview. Next, add some dreams so people can peek inside. Finally, give them some secrets to give your audience an idea of what they hide and why. These are crafting tools for making deeper characters, but they don’t need to be obvious to the reader. Make your readers dig for these things, and it will make them feel engaged and invested.
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