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.

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.

The Blessing and Curse of Research and Inspiration

The more you practice creativity, the more you realize the blessing and curse of research and inspiration. It happened again while I was planning and writing my Fellowship Dystopia series. When we left Miranda at the end of My Soul to Keep, she had sworn off shooting to kill and taken to the water to help rescue fugitives from the tyranny of the Fellowship. So I had an obvious place to start book two… on the water. But the inspiration for her yacht, the Lady Angelfish, came from writing a completely different book. 

Blessing and Curse

The blessing and a curse, research and inspiration come hand-in-hand for me. I can dive Marianas Trench deep down some of those research rabbit holes. When I do that, I lose time… days and days… All right, not days, but I definitely lose hours.  

Some of you may have read a sneak peek at another novel I’ve started, Paladina. I needed information about life in Greece told from both natives and non-natives. While researching that, I came across blogs and vlogs of expats living on boats as they explored life outside the U.S. Life abroad and aboard a boat fascinated me. Their blogs gave lots of details about the benefits and challenges of that life. Their vlogs added to those details.

The Great Loop

I ate up those blogs about life on boats, and that led to a revelation. I discovered that there are boaters who take a year-long epic boating adventure in the U.S. They call it the “Great Loop.” 

The Great Loop is the name of a continuous waterway that allows boaters to explore Eastern North America using the Atlantic and Gulf Inter Coastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals, and the inland rivers of America’s heartland. Anyone who completes the journey becomes an official ‘Looper.’ Boaters can travel all or part of it.  

The blessing and curse of inspiration hit me when I saw this map of the Great Loop that show the primary and longest route in purple that travels from the great lakes down the Mississippi to the gulf, around florida and up the east coast to the hudson then the great lakes again and a shorter version in green that avoids the Hudson and half the Mississippi.

Research Stretched into Inspiration

You know, with a name like Looper, I was hooked (wordplay intended.) I didn’t know it then, but that the blessing and curse of research and inspiration had hit me for a book I hadn’t even outlined yet. That rabbit’s hole took me on vicarious journeys via blogs and vlogs. Some shook loose memories of short boating trips I took as a kid. And boy, some of those blogs and vlogs were super educational. 

A Little More Research

I learned about locks and I learned the rules of boating etiquette. Previous to my research, I hadn’t thought about who policed the waterways. I learned that, too. (Do you know which U.S. Agency patrols our inland waterways?) I used as much real detail as I could. 

I also researched what size and type of boats travel the Great Loop. Then, I had to factor in the alternate world of the Fellowship Dystopia and determine what Miranda’s boat looked like. Fortunately, there are a ton of online marinas that sell boats with lots and lots of pictures and details. At the time, sYs International Yacht Sales had exactly what I had hoped to find.

Here are a couple more of the photographs I used to help me plan Miranda’s yacht. Some of these details appear in If I Should Die. But for the story, Miranda’s boat has more interior space and a few special features. 

If I Should Die

Image of the cover of If I Should Die on the paperback cover and the ebook on a smart phone. In the background are the red and yellow flames of an explosion.

If I Should Die, is book two of the Fellowship Dystopia, now available for pre-order on AmazonKOBO, and Barnes & Noble. But the clock is ticking on the pre-order period. Order your copy now.

The protagonists from My Soul to Keep, Miranda and Beryl, return two years after their battles in book one. Although the rebels didn’t uproot the tyrannical Fellowship Council, Miranda kept her promise to herself and hadn’t picked up a gun to shoot another person. She’s piloting the Lady Angelfish through the inland waterways of the U.S. and rescuing fugitives from the Fellowship. She never expected to have to make a choice between sister and brother, peace and war.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll give you a taste of locations and characters from book two. You can read If I Should Die as a stand-alone novel, but you’ll enjoy it more if you’ve read My Soul to Keep.

Research and Inspiration

No matter how much research I did, I could not get my poor brain to remember nautical terms. In early drafts, I used port and starboard as if they were interchangeable. SIGH. Inspiration doesn’t mean you don’t have to work at it. To avoid confusion, I kept a cheat sheet beside me during revisions.

If you are a Looper, and you read If I Should Die, know that the book takes place on a very small portion of the Great Loop. I hope I did enough research I didn’t make any glaring errors, but whatever errors I made were mine and mine alone. 

A writer’s life isn’t a comic book. We don’t get cartoon bubbles of lightbulbs above our heads. But we have the blessing and curse of research and inspiration being linked. Linked and a possible “waste of time.” A waste of time that often brings inspiration. 

Had you heard about the Great Loop before? Are you a Looper? Even if you aren’t a Looper, I’d love to hear about your boating or inspiration experiences.

Better Characters through Lies, Secrets, and Scars

This week I’m revisiting and improving a post I wrote in 2019. Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters appears today on the Writers in the Storm Blog. You may remember this post but it’s been improved with examples. If you check it out on the WITS blog, please say hi. 

Image of a train coming around the mountain full of fall foliage is one kind of train that depends on rails to keep it moving like lies, secrets, and scars keep your character and story moving forward.

Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters

Many writers spend days, weeks, months, even years creating characters using complex character profile worksheets. The best characters aren’t a collection of data points on a worksheet. Depending upon data points like the genre, physical attributes, favorite desert, or what he’s wearing may disrupt story flow even to the point of what many call writer’s block. Not that those data points are unimportant, but focusing on the lies, secrets, and scars of your characters will give your stories power. That emotional journey ties everything together into a book your readers can’t put down.

The Why

Lisa Cron calls it your character’s misbelief. KM Weiland calls it your character’s lie. Brandilyn Collins calls it inner values. And Donald Maass says it’s how we get readers to make their own emotional journey. What are they talking about?

Most people have morals, values, or other belief systems that guide them in their choices. It’s the reason they choose B over A when A and B are equal. Call it an inner guidance system. Most of us don’t think about it much, it just is.

When we read a story or watch a film, we connect with characters whose inner guidance system is like ours. Choices the character makes, and the possibilities rejected by that character, fascinate us. The more we wonder, “would I have done that” and “what’s he going to do now,” the more we are hooked….

The Rest of the Story

To read more of the updated the Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters post, go to Writers in the Storm. I hope you find it helpful.

Image Credit: Balazs Busznyak on Unsplash

Breathe Life Into Your Characters

Writers are told to breathe life into your characters. But how? Some how-to experts claim that to write believable characters you must fill out page after page identifying every mundane detail of their lives. Is it wrong to do so? No. Some writers may need tool to learn who their characters are. Unfortunately, many writers take this advice to heart and spend days, weeks, months crafting the “perfect character” whose wooden speech and actions leave readers cold. There are four basic points you need to understand in order to create realistic, relatable characters.

Photograph of of a wooden, blank-faced figurine controlled by strings. Breathe life into your characters by making them more than a wooden marionette.

The Basics

Yes, your character needs a name, a background, and likes and dislikes. But details will not make your character real. Breathing life into your characters takes understanding people and, dare I say it, liking people. More importantly, it takes understanding yourself. If you don’t understand why and how you react to the triumphs and tragedies of your life, your characters will fall flatter.

No, you don’t need a degree in psychology, but you need to understand basic personality types and how they are likely to react to different trials and triumphs.

Don’t know where to start? Document your daily emotional reactions. Explore why you reacted that way.

For resources in print, go to your public library. Look for resources in the juvenile section. Ask your librarian for a recommendation. Another great resource is Stanislavski’s books on Method Acting (An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.)

Inner Life

Once you understand how distinct personalities respond to different pressures, you have the beginnings of motive and the beginning of your character’s inner life.

Everyone has an inner life. It can be voices in our head or pictures or a movie complete with a soundtrack. Inner life is a melding of our past, our present, and our dreams. Rarely are inner voices all positive or all negative.

That inner life often conflicts with the outer life. And that conflict is often the source of the lie we tell ourselves. To give your readers a character they care about, give your character a lie. Intertwine their lie with their desire and the theme of the story and you have the makings of a memorable character.

Notice, character roles like protagonist, heroine, antagonist, or villain are important to the story, but not what makes your characters come to life.

The Rhythm

A wooden marionette with hair, a painted face and a dress but still attached to strings.

Every person has a rhythm to the way they move and speak and live. You know people who speak slowly or rapidly. They often move in the same rhythm in which they speak. They see the world differently. And they don’t trust the same things, nor do they attack problems in the same way.

Give your characters unique rhythms. The college educated kid uses words differently than the kid who’s street smart. 

To the college educated kid, the world is a game to outsmart. The street kid sees the world as something out to get him if he doesn’t move fast enough. They each move, speak, plan, and react in a different rhythm.

Be mindful of the rhythms you give your characters. Sometimes the rhythm of sets one character in conflict with another. 

What Is Extraordinary

Great Characters are the key to great fiction.

Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass also said that it’s possible to create the breakout novel. All it requires is to find what is extraordinary in ordinary people. I’d go a little farther. I’d say that most people have a bit of extraordinary in them. Many of us never find that one extraordinary thing within us. To find it, the writer has to be a keen observer of other people and themselves. Especially of themselves. 

There is a spark in most people. The thing that lights them up and spreads the joy or enthusiasm they have. Or maybe it’s the tiny spark that keeps them going no matter how badly life piles it on.

Often in great juvenile fiction, the character’s extraordinary bit is pretty clear. What makes Sherlock Holmes extraordinary? It’s more than magic that makes Harry Potter extraordinary. Before you decide you know what that is, as a non-writer who reads a lot. If their answer doesn’t match yours, dig deep and figure out why.

Breathe Life into Your Characters

Photograph of a young woman with natural hair, sitting on the curb one leg extended, one elbow on her bent knee and her chin in her hand

To breathe life into your characters, the writer needs to understand basic personalities, the inner lives of people, the rhythms people use, and what is extraordinary about ordinary people. When a writer is told they’re young and haven’t lived enough life to write about it, it’s often because of a lack of understand these basics of character building. Basic personalities with rich inner lives and specific rhythms along with that one extraordinary train will breathe life into your characters.