A Beginner’s Advice: Giving Characters Depth

As a writer, I’m not sure I’ve given one particular thing more thought than character depth. I’m sure all writers think about this, especially other beginners brimming with the drive to create a character who can offer something captivating and unique to the reading audience. While I’m hardly an expert on crafting characters, there are some methods I’ve come up with that can help with the process. Writing, writing, and more writing is of course the best way to practice the craft, but it does help to discuss, and learn what you can from what you read, which is how I arrived at the line of thinking I’m going to share.

The seeds for this idea were planted by the “Desire” chapter from The Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman. In it, Desire briefly talks about their brother Dream: “He talks of stories. My brother. Let me tell you the plot of every one of his damned stories. Somebody wanted something. That’s the story. Mostly they get it, too.” While spoken cynically, I realized it does present a strong foundation for creating character and story.

Most stories can in fact be boiled down to this raw idea. What a character wants can be something physical, emotional, or even just conceptual, but what matters is this desire for something. This is a simple concept on its own, but it got me started down a path of simple questions, the answers of which can help make a character more complex.

You’re starting here, simply asking “What do they want?” Maybe they want to find something, save someone, become the best at something, get home, love, revenge, etc. It doesn’t matter what you want for you character, it could be anything. Once you have this worked out, start asking “Why?” What matters is how you answer this question. If the first answer is simple, keep asking “Why?” or “So what?” Become your own critic, pester yourself for details, and make your answers as complicated as you need them to be.

As a short example, I will use Dunk from A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. What does Dunk want? To become a great knight. Why? Because becoming a squire for Ser Arlyn of Pennytree elevated him from his impoverished life in King’s Landing. So what? What’s he’s learned has given him a strong, though naïve, sense of honour and respect for knighthood. He believes following this path will make him a better person.

Make sure to ask this chain of questions more than once as well. While something a character wants will be tied to the plot, especially for the protagonist, it is important to ask this numerous times to flesh out as many details about the character as possible. It can get especially interesting when desires clash with one another, creating more personal conflict for the story. Some of these details may not even come up more than once or twice, but little details can make a big difference in how the reader relates with the character.

While this may not be the best way of approaching character construction, it is a method that has been useful to me in the past. Obviously there is much more to consider when constructing a story, such as taking what you establish here and asking “What’s stopping this character from achieving this?” to establish conflict. Regardless, I do hope that this post offers some assistance to whoever happens to read it.


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