Rounding Flat Characters

If you find yourself having trouble seeing your characters, whether major or minor, as full people in their own right, here are a few questions you might ask to help nudge them in the right direction.

What’s the character’s internal motivation; what does he or she really want?
This might particularly be a question to ask of a flat protagonist, the result of a main character who seems motivated by nothing but plot-level or external circumstances. Remember that your hero is also a person like you or me … and consider what we’d feel in a similar situation. (And don’t forget that even minor characters have motivations, and lives, of their own.)

How might you locate a character’s internal motivation and conflict if these seem to be absent? If your character’s motivation seems purely external, perhaps as part of his obligation or job—if you’re writing a detective novel, and the character has simply taken on a new case—try to consider what it is about the character, personally, that informs his or her professional work, how it influences his ability to do the job, or speaks to the reason he entered this profession in the first place. Also consider how this particular job is different from yesterday’s job, or tomorrow’s or last year’s. Presumably part of what makes this job or case different is that it is personally different, there’s something personally at stake. How might that be the case?

What peculiar traits—of appearance, personality, behavior, mannerisms, speech—might you highlight about the character to make him seem fuller? I don’t mean that giving a monocle and a handlebar moustache to a character automatically makes him full. Instead, consider what unusual or distinctive features might exist for your character naturally … and might help us see him or her.

Are you playing both with and against type? No character is 100 percent good or evil, kindhearted or callous, capable or clueless, so consider not only how to set up our expectation of character but also how to subvert that expectation, how to complicate our view of a character. Hannibal Lecter would be a lot of fun to share a glass of wine with, discussing art and music and philosophy and the finer things. So long as he didn’t kill and eat you.

How is the heart of the character, the motivation, evident in a work you admire?
Consider this with any novel or work that means something to you, no matter the genre. Try looking back at the main character you find compelling and play armchair psychologist a bit, looking at how the external and internal motivation and conflict play with, or play off of, each other.

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