How to Create Characters with Depth
To create a character with depth you need to create a character with internal conflict, a character who has “issues” that they need to overcome before they can successfully achieve the story goal. But how do you do that in a way that feels authentic and not cheesy?
Use the character development template available from the Online Bazaar and follow these steps.
Begin by defining their backstory, because it is in their backstory that you will uncover the source of their issues. Most often these start in childhood and get compounded as we get older by the firming up of the interpretation we put on the inciting incident as a child. In other words we retain a child’s view of a certain situation and this keeps us hostage emotionally to an associated fear and lie. This makes us vulnerable as adults because we will do anything to keep that fear and vulnerability a secret and to protect ourselves from re-experiencing the hurt we felt as a child. We will be frustrated with ourselves when we repeat patterns of bad behaviour and can’t seem to stop them, but these behaviour patterns are hardwired into our psyche to protect us from the pain we experienced as children. This is the essence of the source of their emotional wound and the cycle that repeats it.
That’s a lot to get your head around. Let’s break it down.
First identify what vulnerability, fatal flaw or fear you want to give your character. It should be something that will prevent them from achieving the story goal until they overcome it. Examples are a debilitating phobia, a hair trigger temper, inability to trust or rely on anyone else, inability to love or let themselves be loved…
The emotional wound needs to be extreme, it won’t be overcome easily. This is something that has secretly ruined the characters life up to this point, no matter how successful they may appear on the surface, they are not truly happy, fulfilled or successful because of it.
Now consider how they acquired this emotional wound. What happened in their childhood to cause them to feel this way and what happened subsequently to compound it? What lie did they tell themselves as a child to confirm that their conclusions about the inciting incident of their emotional wounding were right?
The lie and the behaviour it prompts (this is the fatal flaw), is designed to protect them but actually does the opposite. For example if a child is abandoned by a parent, they will tell themselves that they are flawed and unlovable, that it is their fault that their parent abandoned them. They will therefore become hyper vigilant as an adult to the first signs of abandonment and flee before the other person can abandon them or conversely become so clingy and needy that they drive the other person away, thus confirming their conclusion that they are unlovable is true. Perversely this gives them a false sense of control.
Their fear is the pain of abandonment and they will act first to prevent it happening. They may not flee or become clingy, they may fight, become angry and abusive and thus push the other person away. It depends on what kind of personality you want to give your character as to how they react. But you need to ensure that each reaction is explainable and consistent. Don’t just throw together a random set of components, they need to make a coherent story.
Write this backstory in as much detail as possible so that it is real to you and you thoroughly understand your characters psychology.
Now you need to craft a solution to the internal problem. What will fix it? Often the answer is love, but it might be the satisfaction that comes from helping others, risking all to perform a great feat of bravery, overcoming a debilitating fear, achieving success… Whatever it is, it needs to undo the damage of the past, prove the lie is false and get the character to recognise that their fatal flaw hasn’t been protecting them, it’s been hurting them. Generally, they need to do the exact opposite of what the fatal flaw prompts them to do. Instead of fleeing, stay and work it through. Instead of getting angry, listen and try to accept, take responsibility, forgive…
Once you have these two elements you have the backbone for the characters change arc and you can bake that into your plot. Note it should relate to the external story in someway. The external story solution needs to relate to the characters internal solution as one will cause the other and one must be overcome in order to resolve the other. The dynamic tension between the two solutions is the underlying tension in the story.
You can flesh out your character further by adding the following optional elements:
Happiest moment: their happiest memory relates to their secret desire.
Secret desire: the thing they want most (or think they do, the story might change this).
Starting goal: this is what they want outwardly at the beginning of the story, it may be abandoned as the story progresses.
To tie the character into the external plot you also need to define:
Motivation: the characters motivation to get involved in the story, it should be powerful to overcome their secret fear which will be pushing them in the other direction.
End Goal: this is the solution to the external or story problem (defeat the antagonist, but how, under what conditions, with what consequences?)
Personal stakes: detail both of these
Something they must give up for success
Something they will lose if they fail
Big Stakes: optional but if included how do these impact the character?
With all these elements detailed you will have a solid well-rounded character, with enough depth to carry the weight of your story. See my post on Creating Antagonists and the antagonist template to create powerful antagonists that readers will love to hate. Get the Protagonist Template from the Online Bazaar.