Make Flat Characters Genuine in 8 (Sort of) Easy Steps

Have you been told you have “flat characters” in your story? Reel in your emotions and re-examine your characters. Does your character have little to no internal life? As your character moves through the story, does she overcome nearly every obstacle? Does she have a crystal-clear need? Is she unchanged at the end of the story? If even a few of your answers are yes, you probably have a flat character. Is that a problem? Probably. Flat characters are usually uninteresting and unmemorable. Got flat characters? Don’t worry. You can take your flat characters to genuine in 8 (sort of) easy steps. 

Image of two rows of a chain of paper dolls in shades of green against a green background. .

1. Diagnosis: Flat vs Round Characters

What Does Flat Mean?

If you guess flat characters are the opposite of round characters, you’re right. But let’s take it a step farther. Typically, when a reader says your characters are flat, they mean the characters don’t feel real. They want to read about realistic characters, people like themselves or people they know. Writers often call realistic characters round characters. A round character is a character who has multiple-dimensions to their personality.

In real life, we humans are a complicated bag of emotions, contradictions, and quirky bits. Our relationships with others are just as complicated as we are. We often make a whole range of mistakes in relationships, jobs, and every other aspect of our lives. In order to write a “simple” story, authors must be certain their characters come across the page as just as complicated, even if not all those bits show up on the page. So the first step in diagnosing flat characters is to see what IS on the page.

What’s On the Page?

To fix a flat character, you must re-examine how that character appears on the page. Re-examining your character is harder than it sounds. You created these characters. You likely know them as well as yourself. Unfortunately, that may be part of the problem. As the creator, you read things into the story and character that may not be on the page. 

If you don’t see why readers say your characters are flat, print your manuscript. Mark your primary character’s internal thoughts, emotions, dialogue, and descriptions. (Hat tip to Margie Lawson’s excellent courses.) Then take a step back and look at your pages. Missing one area? That’s a definite area of flatness. If one color dominates the page, lack of balance may be part of what makes your characters flat. Don’t despair. You can fix flat characters. 

Read how to fix flat characters on the Writers in the Storm blog.

Image Purchased from Deposit photo.

Writing How-to: Put Ground Under Their Feet

A frequent piece of advice writers get is to put ground under the feet of their characters. Yet, advice on how to do that is limited or confusing. Often taking the advice literally, writers attempt to make certain the reader knows where the character is physically. However, the phrase means more than what city or building they are in. It also means where this character is in relation to the objects in the room and other characters in the scene. It reveals who this person is. 

Characters fit into a story, into a scene, like puzzle pieces. The right pieces make a complete picture. The wrong pieces can be confusing. To create a character that involves your reader in the story takes many unique pieces or layers. This article will touch on some of the different things you can do to put ground beneath your characters’ feet. 

Focus

Making characters’ voices, or dialogue, as unique as the instruments in a symphony, helps the reader to identify with your characters. But the reader needs more. Every word in your story (or scene) comes from a specific point of view. Strengthen your story and put ground under your characters’ feet by choosing words that reflect what your character sees, senses, his values, judgments, and opinions.

Example

George, a 36-year-old prematurely gray business manager, walked down the street.

That helps the reader see him, but it doesn’t put ground under George’s feet. 

Be careful

Keep it natural sounding. You don’t think: I, a 36-year-old, struggling writer with her deep brown hair tied in a messy bun, walked down the mud-streaked asphalt street, do you? Of course not.

I’m not saying don’t refer to your character by name. There are certain things you have to do, so your reader isn’t confused, especially at the beginning of a story. However, the larger percentage of your descriptions should be as your viewpoint character thinks of it. So instead of the staying outside of George, try to focus on the inner George:

Example

George, a 36-year-old prematurely gray business manager, walked past his favorite coffee shop on his morning walk.

That’s an improvement, but you can do better.

Read more.


I’m so glad you’re here. I blog for the Writers in the Storm (WITS) blog once a month. I share a portion of it here so that you who don’t follow WITS, can read it.

Don’t worry, I’ll be back to regularly posting content here very soon.

Thank you for reading and being willing to click to read the rest of the post.

For the rest of the article, please go to the Writers in the Storm blog.

Image Credits

Top image by Barbara from Pixabay


Make Music with Character Voices

On the Writers in the Storm Blog, I offer suggestions how you can create characters with voices so distinct that your readers can “hear” theme music for each one.

Bright jolly vector staves with musical notes on white background, decorative major wavy set of musical notation symbol.

Do your characters feel flat? Do they all sound like you and only you? Tune in to the music of character voices, make them sound more like the different instruments of a band or orchestra. Make music with your character voices and your readers won’t be able to get enough of the stories you write.

Great characters are the key to great fiction.Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

What or Who Your Character Is

There are many things to consider when creating your story characters. Many how-to-write articles suggest creating a detailed profile of your characters. Delving into a character’s birth place, likes and dislikes, job, hair color, and using tools like spreadsheets and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires can be helpful, but characters are more than the details on a spreadsheet or form. Character are more than their story role, more than the point of view you choose for them, and more than what they do in the story. Your characters each need a voice, a unique voice. But how do you create that?

The Key to Understanding Characters

When a writer is told they’re too young or haven’t lived enough life to write about it, it’s often because of a lack of understand the basics of character or even life. A general understanding of psychological personality types will go a long way to helping you create varied and interesting characters. 

Learn about the fundamental personality types. Go deeper than Wikipedia, though it may give you an overview that is helpful. There are literally millions of sites on the internet that discuss variations on personality types. Choose one that’s reliable like psychcentral, psychology today, and The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Psych Central has a helpful explanation of what is personality. Psychology Today discusses the basics of personality traits. NIMH has a great resource on personality disorders. Those three sites offer multiple articles on personality, personality traits, and personality disorders. 

Read about establishing your character’s musical pitch and more in the rest of my post at the Writers in the Storm blog.

Create a Compelling Plot with What-But-Therefore

Lynette M. Burrows

You can have interesting characters in a striking setting and have a boring book. Plot structure can create tension that keeps the reader engaged and eager to finish your book. But learning how to plot is confusing. Many writers have their own theory on how to create an interesting plot. Some argue the number of types of plot structure and they name anywhere between one (man against man) to seven. Others talk about the elements of or the stages of plot. Those folk teach five, six, seven, nine, or more elements they call stages, or doors, or plot points. They say to use a diagram or an outline or to write freely and figure it out as you go. What’s a writer to do? Learn as much as you can. A good place to start is 7 Plot Structures for Pantsers by John Peragine. If you’re looking for a simple and effective tool for creating a cause-effect, can’t-stop-reading plot use the WHAT-BUT-THEREFORE method.

Image is of an open book with an illustration on the two visible pages. The first page shows a grassy area with a small pond, a flowering tree, and mushrooms. A picnic basket and blanket are beneath the tree. On the second page is a dry and cracked section of dirt with flames leaping from the top of the page. How does the What-But-Therefore help you get from one page to the other?

What is Plot?

At its most basic level, plot is the chain of events that make up a story. But a basic chain of events does not make a story. Consider this pared-down version of Rumplestiltskin by the Brothers Grimm:

The miller says his daughter can spin straw into gold.

The king gave the girl a room of straw to spin into gold.

The girl made a bargain with a droll little man.

The girl spins the straw into gold.

The king marries the girl and she becomes queen.

The queen gives birth to a little girl.

The droll little man wants his end of the bargain.

The queen guesses his name, and he goes away empty-handed.

Illustration from Rumplestiltskin showing the imp dancing around a pot on a fire in a forested area with a charming cottage in the background.

As a plain chain of events, this classic story has no tension. It’s boring. 

A more complex definition of plot is the sequence of events which causes a character to react in a way that affects the next event through the principle of cause-and-effect. With this definition, you can still create an unexciting story. The tension must rise.

The way I make certain story tension grips the reader is to use a What-But-Therefore outline of each scene.


Read More

Read how the What-But-Therefore sentences work for Rumplestiltskin on the Writers in the Storm blog. (Sorry, I had the link wrong but it’s fixed now.)

A Note to My Readers

Thank you for your patience. I’m consumed with the packing up of nearly thirty years of furniture and life accumulations so my floors can be refinished. For readers of my newsletter, I am moved into the basement and a little less than halfway through the huge task of having my floors refinished. Next month you’ll get a glimpse of the before, life in the basement, and (I hope) a few of newly painted rooms and my beautifully refinished floors. I estimate the move back in will finish near the end of August. I plan to return to my usual blogging and writing schedule then. In the meantime, enjoy this post on WITS or stay here and search for similar how-to write posts.

Create Compelling Scenes with the MRU

I consider myself fortunate to have met Mr. Swain early in my writing career. His book helped me massively improve my writing. I hope this information helps you too. Writing Compelling Scenes with the MRU is introduced here and appears in full on the Writers in the Storm blog on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.


Structuring your novel’s big picture is important. The structure of your scenes all the way down to your character’s motivations and reactions are equally important. If you get the sequence out of order, you risk confusing or completely disengaging your reader. Don’t worry. You can create compelling scenes with the MRU. The motivation-reaction unit (MRU) is a tool introduced by Dwight V. Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. This post is only an introduction to the MRU. In his book, Mr. Swain does a deep dive into the MRU and other tools writers can use to be a selling writer.

“A story is a series of motivation-reaction units. The chain they form as they link together is the pattern of emotion.”

Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain.

What is the MRU?

In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Mr. Swain uses his understanding of the pattern of emotion (how people’s brains work) to create a guideline for writing fiction. He calls it the motivation-reaction unit (MRU) and breaks it down into parts. 

At its simplest, the MRU is—

a.) Motivation.

b.) Reaction.

In the book, Mr. Swain talks about each part of the MRU in great detail. Read it to get a deeper understanding of the MRU. He also discusses what story is, story structure, character, conflict, and ways to be a successful professional writer. 

How Your Brain Reacts to Stimuli 

People react to a stimulus predictably. There are simple responses, more detailed responses and complex responses. What we think varies. What we feel varies. What we do and say varies. But each of our brains reacts to a stimulus in the same pattern. 

A stimulus is something that directly rouses a reaction or activity. We pick up stimuli with one of our senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste. Neurons in your brain process the stimulus and cause a sequence of responses. The blink of an eye is one reflex that happens instantly. Some responses we learned at an early age— don’t touch the hot stove. We gain some after repeated experiences, and some responses need to be processed on a higher level of thought that might take hours to months.

Simplest Stimulus and Response

A reflex is your body’s simplest response. A dangerous stimulus causes an immediate motor response. 

Stimulus: Something flies toward your eye.

Response: You blink without a conscious thought. 

More Complicated Stimulus and Response

The more complicated the stimuli, the more complicated your response. Your brain processes this in nanoseconds and your body responds in seconds or minutes. 

Stimulus: 

You feel the pain of a bee stinging you.

Reaction: 

You want to stop the pain, slap at the bee, and yell. 

Complex Stimuli and Response

Some stimuli, particularly social ones, are far more complex and trigger a complex response.

Stimulus:

Your ex-husband confronts you at a public event and loudly demands that you admit your much loved, recently departed, second husband abused you. 

Reaction:

Confused and hurt, you play the words in your head again,. You knot your hands into fists. You politely deny the accusation and you excuse yourself from the uncomfortable situation. Later, you replay the scene in your head; you remember similar conversations with your ex, and your suppressed anger boils. You curse loudly and deface your ex’s expensive car. 

How to Create an Effective Motivation

Motivation always comes before reaction. But what motivation is Mr. Swain talking about?

Read More

Where did you first hear about the MRU? What have you written, read, or watched that has a great example of the MRU?

If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in the Story Sentence or my posts on Re-Visioning Your Story.