If you’re a writer, chances are that you have come across an instructional course or book encouraging you to write deep characters. By deep, I mean the ones that are beyond one-dimension, those with layers of complex emotion, desires, and personal history.
But just how do you go about doing that?
That question plagued me in many of my projects during the early years of my writing. Time and time again, I would find myself resorting to the same stereotypes of villains and heroes, with the former being motivated by evil while the latter were nothing but good. Such constructs made me feel empty, as my writing never seemed complete. I knew that just adding twists and ramping up their backstories wasn’t enough. Such enhancements merely masked the shallow characters I had created.
Then one day, when contemplating a battle scene, I found myself asking what I would do if I were a soldier. The soldier in question was a good guy, so my initial response was simple: I would do the right thing.
I followed up my first question with another: What would I really do?
I considered the possibilities. If I were a novice, the prospect of fighting would terrify me. My palms would become clammy. Sweat would dot my brow. My ears would perk at every sound.
I asked myself a third question: What would I do that I would want no one to know about?
I might allow the braver men in my company to rush ahead. I might turn coward and run once the opportunity arose. I might defecate myself in the process.
The idea that my hero was less than chivalrous challenged me. The idea that if I were in his shoes and acted in such a manner left me . . . well, quite frankly, embarrassed.
It was my first lesson in self-identity as a writer that stuck with me from draft to draft. For too long, I had been instructed and coached that my writing had to be perfected in order to garner serious attention. That sensibility had permeated my approach to creating characters over the years, with those I imagined being perfect in every way – in their motivation, actions, and overall existence.
However, that embarrassing AHA moment of mine had turned all those tendencies on their heads. From then on, I began to tweak my characters, building them to reflect not the constructed realities I had conjured up from nothing, but rather to display the reality I lived with every day.
In reading this post, such a realization may sound simple, perhaps even latent for an aspiring writer. I assure you, though, it is not. In all the writing groups I have been a part of, wooden dialogue and stale characters persist, both from the pens of new authors and seasoned veterans. When creating characters, so many of my writer friends get caught up in what their characters ought to be, thereby ignoring their true essence. Writing – or reading – a well-crafted character should come off less like a work of fiction and more like a biography. Or dare I say, an autobiography. That’s right, a work of non-fiction that is gritty and brutally honest. One that makes you want to cringe and yet keeps you turning the pages.
How is such a feat accomplished? A professor once told me that writers imprint a piece of themselves in all their characters, be it protagonists or antagonists, allies or enemies. If that holds true for your own writing, then it begs the question: How well do you know yourself? And that begs so many other questions: What would you do in a battle? On a first date? On a job interview? Before a king? With a stolen treasure?
And with those questions, I would add another to follow all of them: What would you really do?
Author Joshua Rutherford has wanted to be a writer all his life. Through college and the more than dozen jobs that he has had, his passion for the written word has never ceased. After crafting several feature film screenplays and television pilots that were never produced, Joshua tried his hand at writing a novel. Sons of Chenia is the product of that effort. When Joshua is not writing – which isn’t often – he is spending quality time with his young family, who currently reside in San Diego, CA.