“This character is flat.” If you’ve spent any time getting feedback at all, you may have heard this critique before. I got this feedback a lot in early drafts of my debut novel, and it didn’t sell until I’d worked hard to eliminate traces of this pesky writing tic.
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Let’s take some time to define a flat character: In literary parlance, it’s a character who doesn’t change from beginning to end or one that lacks complexity. Sometimes they’re stereotypes, or tropes: think the hard-boiled detective with a drinking problem or the ditzy blonde in inappropriate clothing at afternoon tea.
But wait, you might say. Some of those tropes are successful: Check out Philip Marlowe for the hard-boiled detective or Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods. But if you dig a little deeper, we can all agree that these characters have traits that save them from falling into boring category: Marlowe is sensitive to a fault, and after a few false starts, Woods ends up discovering aspirations, and brains beyond what others expected of her.
There is a reason these characters stand both the test of time and the ever-churning mill of pop culture: Ultimately, their natural likeability comes from an element of surprise, of unexpectedness. If you think about it, it comes from their being real. Which one of our friends and acquaintances has funny little quirks that allow us to enjoy their company? Probably every single person we know.
On the flip side, take, for instance, a story I read in a past submission period over at Tahoma Literary Review: A young man goes home to contend with his sisters over their recently deceased father’s estate. One sister, the younger, is a hippie type. She’s got unruly hair, dresses in natural fibers, sits on the floor. The other sister, the oldest in the family, lives in the big city and has a job in finance, or something very like it. She dresses in all black, wears skirt suits with sensible heels; her hairstyle is “severe.” No points for guessing how she talks: in clipped cadences, obviously.
The issue here is twofold: First, the characters are clearly stereotypes. Second, as with most stereotypes, the older sister goes on to behave in a way that assuages our collective knowledge about this character. Predictably, the stuff she says all falls into this category: She’s the one in the family who’s very cut and dry. She wants to do things by the letter and is totally unemotional. The younger sister, obviously, is the one with tears and snot all over her face. The reader is bored; we already know these people. There’s no reason to read on.
But what happens if, say, the sister in black talks in a baby voice all the time, or if once she starts talking, she can’t stop? What happens if it’s the sister who sits on the floor who’s no-nonsense, who just wants to be done with all things dead-father related?
Ah. Now we have something interesting. Now we have characters we really want to dig into and get to know.
So why is it that, despite our delight at discovering characters who are different and interesting, writers fail to default to them? We wouldn’t be interested in such people in real life; why would we write them?
Ultimately, it’s because people are lazy. Laziness is at the heart of prejudice, of snap judgments, and of flat characters. For writers, who have to manage complex, intriguing plots, rich settings, page-turning prose, and well-rounded characters, writing characters who feel familiar to us feels like sinking into a warm bath with a tub of crème caramel and some Cadbury eggs at hand. It’s no wonder we do it.
So how do we get past this point? How do we overcome our innate laziness or desire to have people fit into neat, pre-proportioned boxes of emotion? With some help from unexpected places, I put together some tips that I’ll definitely use as I go into revisions for my next novel.
1. Recognize that singular character traits close doors
At the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for, we do a mind-boggling amount of work around leadership and personal development. Part of this is due to our small team size – when we deploy, we only send out two to four people at a time, so everyone needs to be fully aware of their own personality types and potential weak spots.
One of my weak spots is quick judgment. I like people and tend to study them, as befits a writer, but this leads me to assess things and personalities really quickly. “Take care not to identify people by a singular character trait,” said my team lead on a recent deployment. Doing so, she went on to say, can close doors unnecessarily.
What does that look like for a writer? Think of it like this: If we write characters that can be summed up with singular actions (think catchphrases, for instance), then we don’t allow them to act to their full potential, which means that they may not be allowed to execute the plot points we need for a strong narrative.
2. Use real-life characters as gut-checks when you get stuck
Scene: My friend Roz and I are taking a walk in my California neighborhood. It is a hotbed of xeriscaping, since we’re in danger of drought a lot of the time, and I point out a particularly nice yard, explaining to Roz that our city gave homeowners cash back for drought-resistant yards. “But that guy voted for Trump,” I say.
Roz is quiet for a second. “And?”
“Well, you can’t take advantage of a cash-back offer based around environmental stewardship and vote for that guy!”
Roz says, “I don’t care who he voted for. At least he’s got a yard that’s better for the environment.”
Roz lets a beat go by before she says, “You really like it when people behave within the lines, don’t you?”
Yes, yes I do. I prefer it when people don’t challenge what I think I already know about their behaviors. This personal tic of mine, as you will have already guessed, creates all kinds of problems when I go to write characters. Fortunately, as Roz pointed out, plenty of people exist in real life with seemingly contradictory character traits, all of which are sprung from very interesting motives that make them real and plump with verisimilitude. Recalling these people when I fall into the rut of writing predictable characters allows me to write more interesting, believable people.
3. Questions reveal underlying depths
Some tried-and-true advice for writers trying to unearth a character’s motivation is to ask questions of that character. Some editors and coaches, myself included, encourage writers to ask questions like, “Who would you have over to dinner if you could invite anyone?” and “What’s in your pockets?” and “What did you dream about last night?”
These are fine questions, but I read something in a book geared more toward MBAs than writers that made me take a harder look at the questions I’m asking of my characters.
In Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, written by the good folks at Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation, the writers encourage anyone facing a difficult conversation to turn off their internal voice, which inevitably dictates how you think the other person in the conversation should behave. They suggest letting curiosity rule instead: finding out what the other person thinks is happening; discovering what might make them think or feel a certain way.
Find that curiosity, they say, by not letting the purpose of the conversation be to persuade or win or get the other person to change, or do something you think they want. (The number of times I’ve suggested that writers lighten up their authorial hand in their writing underscores this advice: The more you direct your characters, or force them to act outside of their natural motivation, the more plausible it becomes that you’ll end up with flat characters.)
The writers of Difficult Conversations suggest that questions like this might help you to deepen your understanding of someone else’s position: “What else do I need to know for that to make more sense?” or “I wonder how I can understand the world in such a way that that would make sense?” For writers trying to get to know and round out their characters, the questions might be, “What might have happened in this character’s life to make them behave this way?” or “What pieces of information am I missing about this character that will help me to build them out better?” or “What else is happening in this narrative that this character might be affected by or can contribute to?”
It shouldn’t be easy to write well-rounded characters that feel real. It takes constant questioning, observation, and more than a modicum of self-awareness of who you are as a writer in order to pull it off. But help, it seems, lies partially in your own motivation to uncover these characters and partially in your willingness to push the envelope of what you think you know.
Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.