Bend and Break
One of the more common problems I run into when editing fiction is the “dimensionless character.” You know her. She’s defined by…um…her lack of definition. She’s a paper doll trying to make a splash in a three-dimensional world.
Now, when I say “lack of definition,” I don’t mean she’s not well described (though sometimes this is also true). That she has pink streaks in her midnight-black hair is a fine detail, but it is a meaningless (and potentially unnecessary) detail unless we know enough about her to care why she has those streaks.
Perhaps it’s evidence of a rebellious nature. (That would be a reasonable guess.) But it could also be evidence of a playful, free spirit. What if it’s the consequence of a lost bet? Could it be a not-so-subtle cry for help? An invitation for love? Or maybe it’s a poignant picture of longing – a sincere-yet-misguided attempt to paint herself into a peer group that she knows will go all Star-Bellied-Sneetches on her the second they see her hair, quickly replacing their own pink streaks with beaded locks or some other look.
If the author has done a good job revealing the character, we’ll know exactly why she did it. Even if the reason goes against her nature, we’ll understand what prompted the act.*
So, how do you get there? How do you give your paper doll flesh and blood and a soul worth caring about? There are tons of ways to do this and I’m sure you’ve discovered many of them in that leaning tower of “Building a Better Character” books stacked on your bedside table. Write her backstory. Make up a resume. Base her on your crazy Aunt Lucy. All are fine ideas.
Now here’s mine: bend her until she breaks. Put her in situations that will test her mettle, challenge her beliefs. If she continues to put on a Stepford smile and say “everything’s just fine” each time you toss her a challenge, try tossing her in front of a train.
Take away her friends, her family, her dreams. Push her, Job-like, to the edge and then keep pushing. (BTW, it’s okay if you don’t use these scenes in your novel. The point of this activity is to reveal the true nature of your character.)
If you’re doing this right, it’s gonna hurt you as much as it hurts her. Don’t shy away from that pain – it means you care what happens to her.
And isn’t that what you want from the reader?
*I’m not suggesting that you avoid all description until a character is well-defined. That would be silly. Use all the paints you want, but just make sure that somewhere along the way we learn enough about her to understand the why behind the what. Don’t underestimate the power of those “oh, now I understand” moments when a reader discovers a character’s underlying motivation for previous acts. They are just the sort of discoveries that bind readers to the characters and the story.