Ever come across a character in your reading and found that they only ever respond in a very predictable way? What you might have come across is a character that lacks depth. Characters are like people, they need to have depth for people to love them. Many people believe that to give their characters depth is to give them a huge backstory, which might work, but then you end up dumping the backstory so that the reader knows how much effort was invested into this great character. I have found even in characters that have a huge back story with complicated twists and turns, it is still possible to have a plat or two dimensional character. The reason for this is very simple: the character doesn’t respond to that complicated story in any meaningful way.
For characters to stop being two dimensional they need to stop just reacting to the story or setting in predictable ways. So how do you have characters that interact with the story in different ways? You have them react differently based upon what they believe and what they have experienced.
If a character was bullied in childhood, then a situation comes up that they are being bullied at work there are a few ways that the character can deal with the situation. They can remain being bullied at work, it is a logical outworking of their character, however they don’t show any growth and development, and that is what stories are all about. The other way is for them to break free of the bulling either by becoming the bully or by resolving with the bully. How the character goes from being bullied to resolving the problem is yours to decide how they develop.
Using the past, the characters past to influence the story is a great way to add depth. Another way to add depth is for the character to struggle with a problem in story. Continuing with the bullying scenario, the character is being bullied and is trying to decide how to deal with the situation. They can wrestle with fighting back, getting the bully into trouble with superiors, or running away from the situation altogether. What the character ultimately chooses is up to you but the character needs to struggle with how to deal with the problem before acting on a solution.
Another way to add depth to the character is for their personal problems to spill over the normal bounds that people have in their lives and have the problem affect them in other areas. The character is being bullied at work and becomes withdrawn at home and affects the characters love life or family life. The character could end up becoming a bully themselves by bullying family members, they can’t control their work lives so they deal with it by controlling their home lives and the people in it. This makes a great twist as the bullied becomes the bully, then a family member or loved one can confront the character and have the character experience grief and shame as they learn that they have become the bully themselves. This makes a great plot twist.
Having the characters experience a negative effect of their actions, this adds depth not only to the character but also to your writing. The characters are seen going through a series of emotional challenges and developing as a result of them. This combined with the other dimensions of the character you have built in will add great depth to the character.
Do you need to do this to all your characters? No not all, but any characters that appear in the story for more then plot delivery should absolutely have depth. If a character is just there to deliver a message to another character then it is totally okay not to develop this character. Any character that you drop into their point of view for any period of time needs at the least to be fleshed out a little, otherwise why did you go to the effort of building a scene from their point of view?
The main character also has to not be the only character that is fleshed out in great depth. Surrounding the main character with two dimensional or one dimensional characters make the writing feel incomplete and will actually reduce the main characters effect on the world you have created. Like tossing a stone into a still pond leaves ripples so your main character will have an effect on the world you create, fictional or otherwise. When you have multiple characters effecting each other, it can be described as multiple stones in the pond. The ripples will effect each other and make your story more alive for the interactions that you have created. You don’t need to write them all into your story at the very least they need to be felt by the reader.
Keep writing and reading,