Rounding Flat Characters - Writer's Digest

Rounding Flat Characters

 Learn tips for creating vivid, memorable characters, rather than cardboard ones. 
Publish date:

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.

Learn more about The Nighttime Novelist


Seven Tips for Intuitive Writing: The Heart-Hand Connection

Award-winning author Jill G. Hall shares her top tips for how to dive into your latest project head-first.


Bearing vs. Baring vs. Barring (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use bearing vs. baring vs. barring on with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.


15 Things a Writer Should Never Do

Former Writer's Digest managing editor Zachary Petit shares his list of 15 things a writer should never do, based on interviews with successful authors as well as his own occasional literary forays and flails.


Evie Green: Imaginary Friends and Allowing Change

Author Evie Green explains why she was surprised to end writing a horror novel and how she learned to trust the editorial process.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: The 3 Prime Rules of Horror Writing, Contest Deadlines, and More!

Welcome to the first installment of a new series! There's always so much happening in the Writer's Digest universe that even staff members have trouble keeping up. So we're going to start collecting what's on the horizon to make it easier for everyone to know what's happening and when.


Lenora Bell: When Fairy Tales Meet Reality TV

Bestselling historical romance author Lenora Bell discusses researching, avoiding info-dumps while still charming readers, and how her latest book was inspired by her life.


Three Keys to Crafting Chemistry Between Characters

Romance author Michelle Major explains her three go-to tips for ensuring your characters have believable chemistry.

Saving Money on Your Screenwriting Career

Take Two: Saving Money on Your Screenwriting Career

No one wants to break the bank to learn how to write a screenplay. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares practical tips on saving money on the pursuit of a screenwriting career.