Trying to Write Humans Instead of Robots.
Our favorite characters are multi-layered.
Think back to the last movie you watched. Or the last television show you binged. Go all the way back to the last book that grabbed you and didn’t let go; while the usual suspects of rich prose and an exciting plot will plead guilty at the outset, your brain’s grand-jury will subconsciously convict the characters of compliance in storytelling excellence.
We may not immediately recognize why certain works of fiction — or even non-fiction — resonate with us. We may not even understand our disposition towards certain genres, ideas, themes, or settings. What we do understand is that character matters. It matters not only in a sense of who’s doing what in the story at any given time but also why we should care.
Their personalities and arcs may drive — or even provide conflict — to any given narrative. A ticking-time-bomb about to go off is one thing, a ticking-time bomb about to kill a character we love is something else entirely.
So why is it so difficult?
You can find numerous guides on plot structure, grammar, word choice, and formatting when it comes to writing short stories and novels of all kinds. However, characters remain an enigma. While guides may present simple checks such as ‘don’t make them too perfect,’ or ‘don’t make them too Imperfect,’ none of these really solve the problem.
If you distilled the advice given by bestselling-authors and how-to-manuals, you would end up with a lifeless, formless, contradictory shape with speech-patterns resembling a translation-bot. Flawed characters can become disfigured husks designed to shuffle or stall the plot along at the writer’s leisure — or they just end up as faces in a crowd.
The faces in a crowd characters are the types which appear in made-for-TV-movies featuring giant sharks fighting giant crocodiles. Yeah, those characters.
So let’s try an exercise.
We’ll try to build a multi-layered character from scratch.
And we’ll do try to it in only a couple of paragraphs.
The Single-Layer Character
First, we need to build a situation for our character to exist in…
…dramatic brainstorming music plays in the distance…
…A middle-aged female-accountant is trying to board a plane before time runs out.
Okay, there’s something. Even though I don’t know what will happen if time runs out — or why she’s trying to board the plane — this at least gives us something to work with.
We’ll start out in the airport security line.
The line moved like the security-officers were attempting to confiscate time. Worry crept up and Sheila didn’t know if she’d make the flight. After all, the plane was boarding in ten minutes and the few people standing in front of her looked about seven minutes at best. She checked her watch and sighed. The situation was awful — she could feel the tension permeating throughout her body — but she told her mind to gain composure. I have a job to do. And it’s important that it gets done. After all, I’ve survived worse before.
She avoided eye contact with the burly security-officers to not draw unwanted attention. When a soft hand touched her back, she gasped and turned around — only to find an older woman with large spectacles and a larger purse regarding her with concern.
“You don’t look well dear, are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine! Thank you!” She spun back around, mentally willing the line to move faster.
Nothing about her last job had prepared her for this moment but it felt like her life followed a similar cycle; something good followed by an undoing. Even if this undoing was an international conspiracy plagued by assassins, she wished her life could be on an upward trajectory just for once.
Just stay calm, she told herself. You’ve got this. You can do this.
When she glanced at her watch again and saw five minutes had passed, she was relieved when the time came to put her heels and belongings in the plastic bin. When she glanced behind the line, four vague shapes scooting in-between the throngs of people. They wore suits with dark sunglasses — smooth enough to blend in but dangerous enough to be a threat. The fear she tried hard to subdue finally managed to overtake her and she tried to rush through the metal detector. It wailed twice.
Okay, so we have something here. We have vague allusions to an international conspiracy and assassins are chasing this poor accountant through an airport for some reason (not very stealthy are they?).
So what did we learn about her?
She’s afraid but possesses enough resiliency to push through.
She may have had a different job in the past but now this one is causing trouble.
And…that’s about it?
We have high stakes but why isn’t the story flowing? Not only do I not have any idea who Sheila is but her place in the story just feels…inert. Assassins are chasing her through an airport and even though the sentences tell me she’s scared, the prose has her reacting and feeling like a robot. I don’t have a sense of personality or history that would otherwise make me care.
Now to be fair, thriller-fiction doesn’t usually wax poetic. It usually doesn’t settle down and offer treatises on the human condition. But let’s see if we can mix it up. Let’s try and flesh her out a little.
The Multilayered Character.
The line moved like the security-team was attempting to confiscate time. Every so often, Sheila looked over her shoulder to see if anyone followed. She glanced at her watch and then checked the ticket. Ten minutes. Sweat beads poured down her forehead and reached her chin before she could wipe them away. Her jitters and rapid eye movement were drawing attention; the officers — burly men possessing itchy trigger-fingers — fixated their attention on her. Her discomfort boiled into a gasp when a soft hand touched her back. Sheila turned to see an older woman with large spectacles and an even larger purse regard her with concern.
“You don’t look well dear…are you, all right?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m fine! Thank you!” She spun back around, mentally willing the line to move faster.
This is awful…I can’t believe this…Okay, I need to remain calm…
Okay. I can do this. I have to do this.
Nothing as an accountant could’ve prepared her for this; not the college-courses, not the tests, and certainly not the certification. Not even the action-thrillers her ex-boyfriend had dragged her to provided any wisdom on how to handle international assassins. It felt like her life always followed a similar high-and-low cycle — a higher-paying position at a new company now led to a vast conspiracy. Why couldn’t her life follow the profits of the company she worked for? What was wrong with having a squiggly line trending upward for at least one year?
Screw you, Trevor. She allowed her thoughts to linger on the ex who probably would’ve found the situation funny if she told him. This is all your fault. Her turn for the plastic shoe-box finally came and she tossed in her required accessories after them. The metal detector loomed in front, almost resembling an MRI-machine. The thought caused her to take a breath before stepping through. An MRI machine meant a hospital. She hated hospitals.
The alarm screamed, causing Sheila to jump and involuntarily turn around. Behind the security-line, she could see vague outlines of four men wearing suits and sunglasses moving swiftly through the crowd. Her heart dropped and threatened to implode in her stomach. More sweat beads trickled down and reached her mouth. There wasn’t time.
Now this at least gives us something to work with! While the prose is more flexible to be sure, it’s tied to Sheila’s thoughts and feelings in an organic manner. Again, we don’t know what Sheila is trying to do or why the men in suits are chasing her. We don’t even know if Sheila will change over the course of this would-be story. The second attempt at least lets us know Sheila a little bit.
So what did we learn?
We know Sheila is not only scared but also frustrated at the situation.
Fear causes her to sweat profusely.
She’s had a series of ups and downs in her life. She may have just gotten out of a bad relationship.
She doesn’t care for action-thrillers (the irony of course being that she’s in one).
She recently got a new job at a different company that she’d been working at previously.
She hates hospitals for some reason (maybe that will become relevant later?).
We learned a lot more, didn’t we? Even though the second attempt drew out a couple of more sentences, I at least have a better idea of the person we’re going to be following in this opening segment. Maybe this is only a short story or maybe it’s a novel — in any case, the second example gives us more to work with.
Not only do the paragraphs paint a deeper picture of Sheila’s history, fears, beliefs, and quirks but because she has all of these, it’s easier for us as the reader to empathize with her.
I’m not pretending to have solved the issue of flat, uninteresting characters. Nor am I pretending to have mastered fiction-writing in any capacity. All I’ve done is provide two examples that may help give me — and you all — an idea of what to strive for. After all, writers want to keep their readers hooked…
…and providing layered characters can help us do just that.