Last week, Sisters in Crime approached me to do a SINC-UP! video tip for their YouTube channel. Volunteers from the national education committee post video writing tips several times a month to provide inspiration for new writers and promote the value of Sisters in Crime membership. All the videos are only 2-5 minutes long and easily digestible.
I chose characterization. After we taped the video, the volunteer told me she finally understood why beta readers couldn’t connect with her main character. She’s not alone. Many new writers struggle with how to deepen their characters. After all, we can have the best concept, premise, and plot, but if readers can’t connect with our characters then the story won’t work.
How do we craft a compelling character?
It starts with three dimensions. We’re all layered. Who we portray to the world falls under the first dimension of character. That’s not to say we aren’t acting genuine, but when we are in a public setting we act appropriately—or we don’t, but that’s what you’ll have to figure out for your character.
- Who is your character in public?
- Do they put their best foot forward?
- Or are they so uncomfortable in a public setting, they make a total fool of themselves?
Jotting down how your character might react in public places will help you nail down the first dimension.
The second dimension of character is the person we show to family and close friends. At home we let our guard down. We’re more relaxed, more ourselves. We don’t need to try to portray a certain image or level of professionalism because we’re surrounded by close friends and family.
- How does your character react around close friends and family?
- Are they goofballs?
- The practical jokester?
- More loving, more reserved?
The perfect real-life example of the first two dimensions of character is Richard Simmons. To the world he was a gregarious, loud, sensitive, and passionate workout guru who pranced around in flashy outfits, the more outrageous the better. Everyone loved him. He was so open, so seemingly transparent, even casual viewers of his workout videos felt they knew the real Richard Simmons. He was a shining light of inspiration to many over the years. When he disappeared from public view, the public feared the worst.
- Did he die?
- Is someone holding him hostage?
- Is he being abused?
No one knew. One day he was performing for the camera, and the next day—gone. No explanation, no paparazzi photos, nothing. He vanished.
What very few knew in the decades that followed was that the Richard Simmons he portrayed to the world was who he longed to become. An alter ego, if you will. At home Richard was an extreme introvert, a recluse with only one or two close friends, a quiet, emotionally scarred, deep thinker who preferred the solace of silence—the polar opposite of who he was in public.
Richard Simmons is an extreme example of the first two dimensions of character but keep him in mind while crafting a new character.
The third dimension is our true character. And by that, I mean, if your character is sitting in a crowded theater when a fire breaks out, do they help others find the exit? Or do they trample the crowd to save themselves? One’s true character is tested when they’re put into perilous situations.
- Who is your character then?
- Are they the savior or the selfish?
- Do they think they’re the savior but when trouble ensues, they run in the opposite direction?
Ask your significant other or best friend to describe who you are in public, who you are in private, and how that might differ. Unless you’ve been in a dangerous situation you may not even know your third dimension…until it’s tested. Then you’ll find out quick. 😉
Once you’ve mastered these three dimensions and have gotten to know your characters on a deeper level, then ask them questions like,
- What’s your greatest passion?
- What’s your favorite genre of music?
- Do you travel?
- What places have you gone?
- How did each trip affect you?
- What was your childhood like?
- Are you an animal lover? (I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like animals)
- Did you have a favorite childhood pet?
- How did you feel when they died?
- What type of things are on your bucket list?
The more questions you ask, the better you’ll get to know them.
Apply the same three dimensions to all your characters, even your villain. You need to know the villain as well as your main character. After all, the two characters should be equally matched. Thus, even if everything they stand for rubs against who you are as a person, you’ve gotta fight for them, win their arguments, understand why they do the things they do. Most villains don’t know they’re the bad guy. They’re on a mission to fulfill their goals, and you, as the writer, need to champion their efforts, especially if you plan to write from their point-of-view.
Do you concentrate on the three dimensions of character while crafting characters?
For those who struggle with characterization, did this help connect a few dots?