What compels readers to keep reading a novel? What connects them to a story more than any other element of storytelling? If you said characters, you'd be right. We all know that it's the characters who carry a novel's story and the emotional component that creates memorable impressions on whoever reads it. It's these characters that, when properly developed, leave a lasting imprint on a reader's heart and enables them to spread the word about a story to other readers who love the same type of character.
But how do you know you're creating characters that have enough depth? What pulls readers heartstrings and makes it so that they fall in love with your main character? How do you keep your supporting cast from overshadowing your main character without dulling their sparkle? Keep reading to find out!
3 Tips For Creating Characters With Depth
1. Set Your Main Character Apart From The Rest
One mistake we commonly see, especially when authors are juggling a larger cast, is that their main character gets lost in the shuffle. It tends to happen when the main character has a quieter or more subdued personality and a secondary or tertiary character has a more outgoing or "loud" personality. It also happens when the main character is playing a covert role (like a spy) or have dual identities. Have you ever felt like another character is stealing the spotlight as you write? You may have this issue.
One way to solve it is to have your characters set apart your main character. Rather than having your main character change their personality, what's needed is some type of distinction that sets them apart from the rest. This can come in the form of a title, a special ability, recognition in being the "best" at something, or something that they are known for that allows their reputation to speak for itself. A few examples: Celaena Sardothien from Throne of Glass is known for both her beauty and her ruthlessness as an assassin, Harry Potter is immediately established as "the boy that lived", Frodo from The Hobbit is the "chosen" one, Alina from Shadow and Bone has the ability to generate sunlight- the list goes on and on. The point is, no matter how "ordinary" these main characters appear to be, there's always at least one stand-out trait that they have/are recognized for that sets them immediately above the rest of the other characters. It's this pedestal that helps distinguish them as the main character and is necessary to keep the hero or heroine in their spot above the others.
Another reason why you'll want to give your main character clout is because it helps deepen their characterization. A hero must tell the reader whether he buys into this distinction or tries to run away from it, and more importantly, why. All of his growth stems from the decision he makes and that's what leads to the massive amount of personal change that you see from main characters. Going back to our examples, we see Celaena running from her real identity and then being forced to claim it. Harry Potter embraces his fame and decides to use his powers to directly challenge Voldemort, Frodo decides to leave the safety of the Shire for adventure and accepts the burden of the ring, and Alina is forced out of hiding by her powers, learns to control them and eventually challenges her nemesis The Darkling. All of these character arcs stem from that initial decision of accepting or rejecting who they truly are.
2. Use Background Information To Create Interest
All your characters, regardless of their role within the story deserve a backstory. Whether that information sees its way into your novel or not doesn't matter, but you as the author should know it like you know your own past history. This is because those events play a role in shaping personality and this influences dialogue through the expression of emotions, physical actions, decision-making, speech patterns, and how they reveal information to others. A skilled storyteller can weave this background into the story in ways that it doesn't feel intrusive or takes away from the overall goal of the scene. Sarah J. Maas does this particularly well in her series. In Throne of Glass she seamlessly weaves backstories for all of her characters that are both enticing and powerful, mostly choosing to relay this through conversation between two characters. It's an excellent way to divulge who and where someone comes from. Patrick Rothfuss chooses to achieve the same thing in his novel The Name of The Wind through memories, flashbacks, and other pieces of cultural triggers when it comes to his main character Kote, a once hero who now lives in seclusion as an innkeeper. In the case of Harry Potter, Harry's backstory is revealed to the reader in reverse. Everyone in the wizarding world knows every little detail of Harry's past and it is Harry who uncovers those facts for himself every step of the way.
Where this becomes problematic is when authors fail to give their secondary and tertiary characters the same level of consideration as they do their main characters. Rather than being full developed, side characters often fall through the cracks and it can be fairly obvious to the reader that not a lot of time was spent rounding them out. A great example of where this doesn't happen is in Harry Potter. We know the background of the entire cast from Harry to Hermoine, to Snape and Neville, to Dumbledore to generations past. Each character is given the same level of care as Harry himself and it shows in the vivid realness that brings them to life.
3. Give Dialogue Added Characterization
Keep the background information for each character in mind while considering dialogue. The age, how a person was raised, their status within their society, level of education, cultural practices, where they are from- all of these things will contribute to how your character speaks and expresses themselves. For example, a teenage girl with a penchant for potion making from Brooklyn will sound vastly different from an elderly mage who grew up in the dessert village of their made-up kingdom. Word choice, tone, gestures, facial expressions, clothing (and how they wear it), dialect, and how they string sentences together, and made up language all factor into this.
There are two things to watch out for while employing this technique. The first is having your characters become too stereotypical. You don't want your elderly mage to turn into a Gandolf or Dumbledore look-alike. You also don't want him to sound unintelligible by only using pretentious words the average reader in your genre wouldn't understand. Similarly, you don't want your fledgling witch from Brooklyn to sound like a stereotypical New Yorker. You also don't want to use too many dialect indicators for those with accents- mainly because it becomes too hard to read and understand. To avoid this, keep your dialect to a minimum. The trick is to establish it's there and to keep conjunctions and commonly used invisible words (such as "and", "the", "this", "that") the same. This allows the reader to pick up and continuing reading in the dialect while still enabling them to understand what they are reading as they go along. To avoid using stereotypes, give your characters variety. A great tip to keep things fresh is to use a basic caricature and then give your character a quality that directly contrasts or conflicts with that image. For instance, the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. He's a lion which by default represents fierce bravery, yet the cowardly lion is afraid of everything- even his own shadow. Another example is Maggie from Tennessee William's play The Cat on the Hot Tin Roof. Maggie may play southern seductress, but deep down she loves her husband and is trying to save their marriage more than anything else.
Creating a worthwhile, memorable story that will have readers coming back for more starts with building and developing a well-rounded cast of characters. Remember to pay the same amount of attention to your surrounding cast as your main character, to characterize your dialogue, and to choose a trait or attribute that distinguishes your protagonist.