Dana's Dojo: Characters So Deep You Can Swim In Them

There is this word, “deep.” People want deep characters. No one likes shallow, except folks who aren’t so great at swimming. Think back on the story people who’ve stayed with you for years and years after you first read about them, and you’re probably going to notice they’re deep. But what is this “deep”? How do you create someone who’s deep?

Patricia C. Wrede did up a couple of posts on it, books on writing almost always address it, and there are entire exercises dedicated to making deep people. Some of that stuff’s useful. Some of it just seems to get in the way. The thing is, there’s no one way to ensure you end up with characters who are more than ankle-deep. Fill out all the character biographies you like, you can still end up with cardboard with a few weird details thrown in.

I’m not going to tell you how writers make their characters deep. Writers are individuals, they’ve all got different ways of doing it. I’ll tell you how I do it, and you can filch any useful bits you like.

To begin with, I treat my characters with respect, probably more respect than I afford most real-life people. I don’t even call them characters. That sounds disrespectful. I’m disrespecting folks who exist only in my imagination, and I know that, but there it is: if I want them to come across as real and vital and alive, I have to treat them as such. They are individual people with their own foibles and concerns and desires and problems and habits, and they have their own minds, and they do not exist solely to help me move a story along. In fact, quite often, they’re southbound when I’m wanting to head west. I can sometimes persuade them that west is best, but more often, I’m forced in the direction they want to go. Much like you, and your more stubborn friends or family members. They cause me to adjust my expectations and rearrange things to their satisfaction, and the fact that they so often surprise me means they sometimes surprise my readers. I trust them. I trust them implicitly. My characters know far better than me. I’m just taking dictation.

That probably makes me something of a codependent doormat, but that’s fine by me.

But how do we get to that point? How do we get to know each other? How are they introduced?

They show up. Simply that. I’m not one of those writers who can sit down at the beginning and say, “I want to tell a story about weasel liberation gone horribly wrong. I shall have to have scientists at a research lab, young firebrands belonging to ALF, and probably a bumbling security guard for good measure.” I can’t write out a cast list and then start doing bios. That’s not how it works. Somebody shows up, pulls up a chair in my mind, and says, “Let me tell you a little story about the time we tried to free the weasels. It’s why I’m not a vegetarian anymore.”

All right. I have someone sitting in front of me. I can observe things like ethnicity, hair and eye color, height, weight, manner and style of dress, any tattoos, that sort of thing. I can listen to the cadence of their speech. I can tell if they’re full of themselves or self-deprecating, humorous or dull, get a sense of their education and outlook. If I was the sort of person who did such things, I could start filling out one of those stupid ten-page bios. I don’t. I let them babble. I write it down, and observe.

After I’ve got the bare bones, and they’ve introduced me to a few of the other folks involved, then I can start looking at bios. I do narrative bios, not fill-in-the-blank lists. I just start writing out things I should know: where they’re from, who their family is, what their lives have been like up to this point. When I get back to writing the story, after several pages of bio, I’ve got a better sense of who and what they are, and don’t have such a tin ear when I’m listening to them.

Then they surprise me. I may have a good, clear sense of how they see the world and how they might be expected to react in a given situation, but then they do something out of the ordinary, and I have to hit pause and say, “WTF?” More exploration in ye olde writing journal, figuring out why the hell they just said or did what they did. Often, this reveals facets I didn’t suspect were there. Bob the ALF weasel-freer didn’t get involved in this animal liberation stuff because he’s a True Believer, he did it for Kate, whom he’s been obsessed with since grade school. But when he looked into the deep brown eyes of a research weasel, he saw the eyes of his Aunty Dolores, whose life was saved by a lab rat once. But not via medical research, but because Aunty Delores was on the cleaning staff, there’d been a fire one night, and she couldn’t find the exit until she knocked a cage to the floor in her flailing, which then burst open and dispensed a rat who scurried for the door. Following the rat, she emerged from the building just before it collapsed. And if he lets this weasel go, who will be there to save the cleaning lady the next time the building catches fire? This is why he hesitates. And in this moment, he realizes he’s never really loved Kate after all, but the idea of Kate. Seeing her now, splashing red paint round the tidy lab, breaking open cages, he realizes that his idea of her and the reality are quite different things. And he thinks back guiltily to all of the people he knows whose lives have been improved or saved because of animal research.

These things go through his mind in a flash, and then he opens the cage and sets the weasel free. In this moment, with him doing something he absolutely does not want to do, I find another facet of him revealed, things I didn’t suspect til now: being raised by a military father and a deeply religious mother has made him something of a doormat. A rebellious doormat, but one who can’t rebel against the rebels he’s running with, as he hasn’t quite worked his way up to it.

And he doesn’t know this. He doesn’t know why he opened the cage. He curses himself for it. The reader won’t understand, just now, why Bob freed the weasel. But now I know that the reasons are ready to be revealed, a bit later, and I can be aware of other circumstances in which a deeply-conflicted Bob will be affected by things that barely even impinge upon his awareness, until someday and somehow, long after he’s done his jail time for freeing the research weasels (who were promptly killed by local predators, because research weasels were not bred to live free), told Kate to piss off, gone off the veggies and onto a strict meat diet, and married the scientist whose lab he trashed, these things will come clear to him (and to the reader).

Does this make him deep? Not necessarily. It’s mere detail, unless it changes the course of the story, affects his relationships and the situations he’s in and causes him to act in ways contrary to what we’ve come to expect from him. And Kate’s not deep, she’s just a shadow. I have to get to know her, understand her reasons for doing what she does, discover the motivations she hides even from herself, and use that knowledge to fill her. Only then can I have those telling moments, those deep moments in which something unexpected is revealed, in which the various ways people act and react and respond to each other and the situations around them tell us, possibly without words, that these are people with complexities, who cannot always be predicted.

There are off-camera events. I learned this from J.J. Abrams, and I’ve never forgotten it: these people have lives that happen outside the reader’s view. And the characters will reference them. They have their in-jokes, they gossip, and they’ll talk about things the reader hasn’t witnessed. The reader, in fact, doesn’t need to see everything that goes on. They don’t even have to understand it. They probably shouldn’t. A character seems rather deeper when we feel we’re seeing only a snapshot of their lives, when the whole photo album is closed and we know many and interesting things are in there, if only we could see them. Incidental mysteries, those, ones that give us the sense of seeing real people going about their lives just out of your sight.

Deep characters aren’t just ones with interesting quirks and distinguishing marks you stuck on because some writer’s advice column somewhere told you to do it. That’s false-deep. You could know all sorts of interesting details about Bob: that he’s got a chipped front tooth, he’s got a tattoo of a Chihuahua with the word YOWSA underneath, that he likes to eat wasabi on celery. What the fuck does any of that matter? Does that make him seem deep? It only matters if it’s important, and it’s only important if it fundamentally changes our understanding of him. It only matters if we know the reasons, and those reasons make a difference somewhere in the story. Otherwise, they’re just glitter, they’re rhinestones attempting to pass themselves off as diamonds. Walk-on characters can get away with a few wacky details that senselessly stand out and never matter, but your primary and secondary folk, those things should matter or they shouldn’t really be there at all. They’re just cheap tricks, stuck on with glue, and readers can see that for what it is: you trying way too hard to make someone deep.

What the fuck does it matter that Bob’s front tooth is chipped? Well, he got that chip the first time his dad let him shoot an M-16, and he couldn’t control the recoil. It’s a constant reminder that he’s never been able to live up to daddy’s expectations, and it bothers him. And what breaks the bank with Kate is when she asks him, after getting annoyed at him probing it with his tongue for the billionth time, why doesn’t he just get it fixed? No money, he says, but he’s had the money. What he hasn’t had is the mental strength to admit he can move on. He knows that all any dentist can do is make a cosmetic change. The chip will still be there and he knows it. So he spends his money on beer and X-Box games instead. And at the end of the story, when he gets that tooth fixed, we’ll know it means something more than vanity, now, won’t we?

Or maybe he gets that tooth fixed at Kate’s urging, and it’s only much later, when it gets knocked out by one of his former friends in ALF after he’s betrayed them all, that he discovers he’s free of some of that old baggage. Either way, it’s become more than a rhinestone detail: it’s now something that tells us a lot about him, affects a lot of situations, and makes him more than just some dude with a chipped tooth and no backbone.

So that’s what I do with those glittery little details: I dig, I find out why they’re there and what they mean and how they change things. If they can’t justify their existence, I don’t make a fuss over them. There’s no reason to. They add no value.

The most important thing, I think, is not those things, though. It’s putting people in situations together and watching them from a variety of angles. First draft, it’s all I can do to keep up. Second draft, or next scene, I’ve stepped back, taken the time to analyze things, tease out the stuff that’s odd or interesting or doesn’t quite make sense, and bombarded it with questions. Then I know. I know the people, and I know how they mix, and why they interact the way they do, and what led up to all that, and I’ve quite often done a lot of backstory that will never show up in the story proper but gives me a clear sense of everyone. And then I let all of that unseen detail impinge upon the story, and I won’t always explain. I’ll imply. I’ll let readers chew it over. I’m not good at that, I always feel like I should explain, but I try to avoid over-explaining. Let the readers have a mystery they’ve got enough clues to solve, if they’re clever. People like to be allowed to be clever, and I think that makes them see the characters as deep as well. They’ve figured something out. They’ve had an n-dimensional puzzle to solve. Characters who can be taken at face value aren’t deep, no matter how much detail you’ve thrown in.

Detail isn’t depth. Never forget that. Art needs empty spaces so that the picture appears full.

Do you want deep characters? Take the trouble to really get to know them. Set the questionnaire aside. Let them talk, let them act, listen, and then try to understand. Just as you would with people in real life. Get them to reveal as much of themselves as you can. And when you don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing in the story, when they do something you didn’t think they’d ever do, don’t let your first instinct be to revise that out. When your characters surprise you, it’s not a sign you’ve done something wrong. It’s an opportunity to learn more about them, and adjust the story so that the unexpected is still surprising but isn’t coming completely out of left field. It’s an opportunity to let them be deep. Deep people do unexpected things. They don’t always explain why. But ultimately, even if we don’t know quite why they did what they did, it ends up making a certain kind of sense.

Deep characters are implied. Let the implications unfold. Don’t baldly state stuff like, “Bob was insecure about his chipped tooth because blah blah blah.” Let the details trickle out. Let those details come about because of circumstances, not because you decided you’d better insert a paragraph of exposition. Give the reader some clues and let them figure it out. Let Bob discover the real truth as things unfold, because he probably didn’t know himself. And for fuck’s sake, keep him off the psychiatrist’s couch.

It will take a lot of time, effort, and false starts before you have story people so deep people can dive into them without hitting bottom. But it’s worth it.

Dana's Dojo: Characters So Deep You Can Swim In Them

8 thoughts on “Dana's Dojo: Characters So Deep You Can Swim In Them

  1. 1

    What little writing I’ve done still has me surprised by my characters. They just go do things sometimes, and I’m taken aback. I thought I knew them — and hey, who’s writing this anyway? But they do what they do, and I’m just around to record it.

  2. 2

    I’m not a writer and never will be. But I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on “behind the scenes” in other people’s craft, be it writing or acting or making video-games.

    And thus I was deeply fascinated by Stephen King’s “On Writing”. But I was confused by his observation that his best works were “character driven” rather than “plot driven”. To me “character driven” was just a euphemism for “meandering and boring with too much dialogue and exposition”. In contrast, “plot driven” meant that the story actually got somewhere!

    But eventually I “grokked” it. The real world doesn’t follow a plot! There is no “narrativium”! The real world “works” because people do things in it, and people are are motivated by their personalities. The problem with plot-driven works is that often they have to force their characters to go “against character” in service of that plot.

    And while I guess most people don’t sit and analyse their fiction in that kind of detail (I know I usually don’t) they nevertheless feel, at some subconscious level, that “something isn’t right” when they see a character acting “oddly” (or as is often the case, stunningly stupidly). And that ruins the whole experience.

    And that is why you need deep characters, and why you need them to drive the story, not some predetermined plot.

    In any case: Even though I will never put any of what you wrote here into practice, I thank you for letting me catch a glimpse of what goes into your craft, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  3. 3

    One of my characters, in particular, has a habit of showing up when I’m taking a break from writing my thesis and demanding, “What are you up to? You should be working on your thesis!” Thanks, Peter…

  4. Pat

    I’m really enjoying reading both your fiction and your writer’s advice. I had no problems “writing” when I was doing comics – the scenes were visual, the camera work and reveals were panel and page-based, so the vocabulary there was well understood, and the dialogue flowed pretty much like what I saw around me – people didn’t talk in a stilted, expository fashion.

    But making the jump to writing only, it’s been difficult to do that translation – to figure out how to take the staging and manipulations of scene, reveal, and transition and mold that into *just words*. You’ve helped. : ) Thanks!

  5. 5

    Yep, you’re a writer! We should more properly be termed “stenographers,” I sometimes believe – every successful writer I know feels like they’re just taking dictation, maybe polishing up a few bits, but the characters do their thing and we’re just there to put it into pretty sentences.

  6. 6

    We’re a weird bunch, fun to watch, even if you’re not scribbling yourself. Just never say never – too many people have been shanghaied by a Muse unexpectedly!

    I think you’ve got the essence of “character-driven” down better than some writers. It really does mean that the characters drive the plot rather than the plot manipulating some cardboard cutouts. It doesn’t mean for a moment plot isn’t important, just that plot isn’t a mold you should cut your characters to fit.

  7. 7

    LOL. We can never get him and my main character in the same room. The two of them will harp on us so hard we’ll feel like we’re in the hands of some drunken Irish bards holding a competition!

  8. 8

    You’re so welcome! Prose is hard, no doubt about that – nothing else to lean on, no music or images, just words.

    That’s not to say comics are easy. They’re far from it. So much to say in those few words, and how do you choose the right visuals to fill in the rest? Graphic storytelling, to me, is far more difficult than prose. Then again, prose is the vast majority of what I do, and like anything, the more you practice, the better you get.

    Let me know if any subjects come up you’d like me to touch on. Anything in particular you end up struggling with, I might be able to help, and if I can’t, chances are I know someone who’s written something that will.

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