Fixing a Flat (Character)

As I’ve been writing my novel, I’ve been developing characters to hang like ornaments along the continuing plot threads I’m working on. Unfortunately, there have been a few “ornaments” that ended up more two-dimensional than three-dimensional–they were characters which somehow lacked humanity, even as hard as I tried to inject it into their dialogue and actions.

Well, they lacked humanity, that is, until I figured out a little more unconventional way to think about the situation.

The Problem: A Flat Not-So-Minor Character

This post all started as I was writing the most recent episode in my novel, which involves a female character who behaves very nastily toward my hero pretty much all the time. The nasty behavior was just fine–it worked well in the subplot and I was okay with it overall. But as I kept writing and revising, I kept thinking, “Even I don’t understand why this character is behaving this way…and I’m the one writing her!”

This character lacked humanity, the three-dimensional nature I was looking for, because her actions were not understandable. She was just a really flat character, which would have been okay if she didn’t appear quite so much in these few chapters of the novel. But since she was in a lot of scenes, so to speak, I wanted to make sure the character was worth reading about. (In some cases, the conflict between this character and my hero was almost boring because of this!)

The Solution: Getting Into Her Head

I struggled with this for several days…until one night, it hit me, as I kept asking myself “why would this character behave this way?” That was the answer: I needed to see the novel’s events–and my hero–from this character’s perspective! I needed to understand her thought process, her logic, her worldview.

So I quite literally flipped the script on myself, and began to study the unfolding plot through this character’s eyes. How would she view my hero’s introduction to her world? How were her actions and reactions based on her past experiences? More and more details and explanations emerged, as I fleshed out a possible backstory…suddenly, she became a lot more realistic and believable.

My English-professor boyfriend says that what I did was a bit of Deconstruction literary criticism on my own novel, as I imagined the story from several vantage points rather than staying solely focused on my hero’s point of view. Taking the time to develop this character’s backstory and mindset, even though she isn’t a major villain, helped me understand her better and present her as a believable, human character. (I certainly like developing her dialogue more now, even if she is a bit stuck on herself!)

Summary

If you’ve got a character who just doesn’t seem “real” enough in your book or short story, try getting into the character’s head, developing their life story a little bit, enough to where you can understand where they’re coming from. Who knows–you might just get a whole new perspective on your own story, and write a better character to boot!

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