Early drafts of my first novel fell flat. When I began to participate in writing critique groups, it became apparent that my boring characters lacked dimension and played out unresolved aspects of my own personality or only the positive traits of people I love. For example, Claire—the protagonist in “Winter is Past”—was fear-based and narcissistic, while her husband, Josh, was way too perfect.
Through the process of many, many rewrites I’ve picked up a few tricks to add depth in developing characters:
• Dig into the archive of your life. (It helps that I have many years of accumulated “documents.”) Choose people who are memorable: family members, co-workers, bosses, friends… Identify positive and negative personality traits. Mix them up in such a way that Aunt Millie can’t say That’s me, isn’t it?—but make sure that your character has some modicum of consistency in his/her responses. For that purpose, I use the Myers-Briggs personality measure. (Refer to my post of January 18, 2010: Fictional Character Development).
• Be sure that each main player has something that endears the reader, as well as some defect that illustrates the frail side of human nature. Your hero shouldn’t be all good, nor should the villain be totally despicable.
• Pay attention to point of view (POV). At first I tried to write everything from the POV of my protagonist. That’s what I had read you should do and that’s what my fellow writers told me to do. But it just didn’t work. Writer, beware: if you do shift POV, limit the number of characters whose mind you enter and be sure to mark a clear separation between POVs. I use separate scenes or chapters. Don’t shift in one paragraph unless you want to lose the reader—in more ways than one.
• Consider ways to go outside your comfort zone. In my second novel, I wrote from a male perspective. Even though Matt, the protagonist, shares some of my life experiences I’ve tried to deal with them as a man would.
I hope that some of these ideas are useful to you and that I can spare you a dozen or more rewrites.