Character Depth

I would like to start this blog by apologizing for being late in posting this, I am out of town and my computer has been misbehaving. I’ve considered grounding it but I’m not certain how much good that would do. Next week’s entry may be late as well and for that I apologize.

Now, on with the show!

As a writer, one of the primary mistakes I see in manuscripts is that characters are not only unbelievable but they’re often about as deep as a puddle. They’re shallow and often left as just bits of flotsam to drive the plot along and that’s a big, big mistake in the scheme of things. When I read a story, I read it for the characters. I want to see them react, feel, grow, and change. If a character is static and unfeeling (and it’s not a calculated story element) I feel as unsatisfied as I do if I try eating “light” butter. Just give me the damn butter, already!

Characters should be the focus of any good story. They’re the hooks that the reader will identify with and if the characters are so shallow and remote that a reader can’t identify with them, then there is a serious problem – the reader will no longer be invested in the story. An example of this (I’m sorry if this ruffles any feathers) is the “Twilight” series.

I tried to read the first book, but I’m not going to delve into why I couldn’t get past the first chapter – I will simply make my assessment based on the movies (I understand, people will condemn me as “uninformed” but I know several people whom have told me the book is about equal to the movie in this manner). The characters I’m going to nitpick about are Edward and Bella, neither of which display a great deal of emotional complexity or depth. And please, don’t say that Bella’s conflicted feelings about Edward, Jacob, and all that are “depth”, it’s cliched teenage nonsense.

Edward is, according to the story, a vampire who is over a hundred years old, still a high school student, and he lives with his “parents” (clan, and yes, I consider the one who turned him to be his “Father”) and doesn’t feed on humans because it’s immoral. The only personal conflict or character in that initial book/movie is whether or not he’s actually in love with Bella which strikes me less as “depth” and more as “plot”. The character has no deep-seated past, no intense emotional reactions to much of anything, no intense passion and no harsh, internal conflict (at least not in the movie). Those are things that are absolutely required of a believable, and deep character.

So what do I mean by “deep” characters? These are characters that have a backstory. They have a life, and the reader knows it because the character reacts to things that are in line with their life. Let’s construct a scenario so I can show you what I mean:

David is a boy whose entire life has been spent on the “wrong side of the tracks”. Everyone he’s met either wants something from him or wants him to do something for them, oftentimes not something he wants to do. His mother’s a drunk and his father’s not around – his mom’s boyfriend is abusive and beats the hell out of him for not paying for the family. David is 16 and has dropped out of school and works full time for a warehouse, slinging boxes for minimum wage. As a result, he’s pretty strong and he’s not really afraid to intimidate people, though he’s not the type to do anyone harm. He just wants to be left alone.

David now has a story, albeit a very brief one, and so he’s got a little depth. Now, we put him into a situation:

David has just run into a social worker who was called by a neighbor of his mom’s after the neighbor heard his mother’s boyfriend screaming at David and beating the hell out of him. Again. The social worker has caught him just getting home from work at about ten in the morning (he works the night shift).

Let’s look at what the scene might be:

He was sore. Sore and tired. The floor’s overseer had kept him late again because of someone else’s mistake and so he’d had to suffer for it. And what was worse was that they weren’t even paying him for it, since old Charley told him that it was his fault. David seriously doubted that the man actually thought it was his doing that the delivery truck was late, but Charley was an unscrupulous bastard and everyone knew it. If he could pinch a few bucks the old bastard would.

So, really, it was the last thing that David wanted to see when he walked up to the apartment to spy a woman standing there. He knew the look. “Child Services”, what a joke. His lip curled in disgust and he shook his head as he kept walking to the door, trying to ignore her.

“You’re David Tanner,” the woman stated, standing in his way.

“And?” His voice was deep for his age. A man’s voice.

“We heard that there might be some trouble going on… we just want to h-”

“There isn’t any trouble going on here and whoever told you was lying.”

“I’m afraid we still have to talk to your parents, is either one of them available?”

“I don’t think my mom’s home from work and my father left us when I was born. I’ll tell ’em you stopped by.” David was lying through his teeth – he knew his mom would be passed out on the couch by now, probably under Morgan, her ‘boyfriend’. The thought disgusted him, not for the first time, that his mom even considered having sex with a man that ugly.

“Well… here’s my card…” she said, producing a snowy white card with little black letters printed on it. David accepted it and pocketed it without reading the name.

“Alright. She’ll be in touch.” He then moved forward, shadowing her with his six foot, broad-shouldered frame enough that she got the message and moved, swallowing nervously. A moment later and the social worker was beating a retreat and David slouched inside, intent on getting some sleep before his mom and Morgan woke up.

David’s reaction to the social worker and the disgust he feels (and displays) for people trying to “help” him is because of past experience, it’s made very obvious that he’s got no love for people like that and really just wants them to leave him alone so that he can live his life. He also displays a sincere disgust for his mother, but there’s the complicated mixture of love and loathing (since he did stay and got a job rather than live on the street or what have you).

While this is a very brief and rather limited snapshot, it gives you a brief hint of what I mean – characters have to have feelings and those feelings have to have origins – they have to be because of something they experienced.

In essence? Characters have to be real people. Everyone reacts in different ways to stimuli because of things they’ve been through. That’s a fact of human psychology (and one of the founding arguments for the Nature vs. Nurture argument) and so characters have to be built the same way. If your character reacts shallowly to everything he’s presented with, it’s likely to turn readers away because the character doesn’t provide anything to identify with. Not only that, they’re not particularly interesting.

If I had a friend that reacted with glee to everything that happened to him every day, I’d not only be terrified and think that they had some severe mental deficeit, I’d likely have little real interaction with them because I can’t relate to that in the slightest. Characters are, in essence, the sum of their experiences and their emotions.

A good example of a way to display character depth is the first time a character kills someone (if it happens in your novel). How would they react? What are they feeling at the time? Are they feeling horror? Justification? Sick enjoyment? Do they get sick to their stomach? The gamut of human reaction to death (particularly death that personal) is wide and it gives you an opprotunity to tell the reader a great deal about the character by showing (not telling!) the reader how they react to this trauma.

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