Writing Fiction: How to “add more depth” to your character

If you write fiction or non-fiction, you might sometimes get this kind of response from editors or critics:

“Add more depth to the character.”

Depth. Hmm, what do you think that means?

pexels-photo-255268.jpeg
Hmm…

I think some people have a misunderstanding of what it means to “add depth to a character” in the actual text of the story.

I just recently realized this after thinking about my biggest pet peeve in writing: describing the character’s eye color in situations irrelevant and unnecessary.

Example: He pointed a gun at me. Shocked, I opened my brown-green eyes and stared into his deep purple ones which have indigo tints in them.

Uhh…exactly who gazes into the eyes of their enemy? Or even think about the color of their own eyes?

I NEVER think about the color of my own eyes. I don’t think about myself waking up and opening my brown eyes to the morning sun. (I do have brown eyes.)

Please. Don’t.

Anyway,

I’ve come to realize that some people (at least on Wattpad) believe that describing the heck out of a character is “depth“.

Others think it’s adding a bunch of “what is the character thinking about now?” moments.

And there are some that are clueless so they ignore it.


So what exactly is “depth”?

It is making your flat, on-paper character human or real.

Good, now you know what it is so go forth and do it! Yay! 😀

Piglet
“B-but, I don’t know how to add depth? How do I do it exactly?” asked Piglet with worry clouding his face.

Good question.

A lot of critics (on Wattpad, mind you) do not go far enough in explaining exactly how you are supposed to do what they are suggesting.

To be a good critic, you need to explain yourself. Not everyone is going to know what to do when you say, “add depth to your character” or “you need to fill this part out more”.

I’m quite a seasoned writer and critiquer (correctly known as a “critic”) so when they say that, I can understand what they are talking about. But there are writers who don’t understand. So, even though their story may have great potential, just because of that one issue, they might miss opportunities.

I’m not going to go too deep into this critiquing issue, but if you want to know more about critiquing or being critiqued, here are some other articles you can check out:

For Critiquers:

5 Part Structure for Critiquing Others’ StoriesCritiquing in Wattpad Culture

If you are being critiqued:

Be A Sponge: How to be critiqued gracefully


How to “add depth” to your character

First, what is “depth”? What elements are included in “depth”?

Please note that I’m not talking about how to develop your character (e.g., history, likes/dislikes etc.). I’m only talking about how to make your character sound more 3D in text.

Individual traits: Little habits like twiddling their thumbs when nervous, wrinkling their nose when happy, cracking their knuckles at any given moment, etc. You can add these in any time but make sure they are consistent with the character’s personality.

Don’t give an extrovert character traits like avoiding eye contact when talked to or an introvert character a trait like slapping someone on the back and hollering with laughter.

Inner reaction vs Outwards reaction: How they react to a person they don’t like versus how they actually think about them. Maybe they hate character B but they respect character B’s decisions because he makes good decisions as a leader, for example.

OR, how they react to someone they do like versus how they really think about them. For example, character C might be the protagonist’s crush but the protagonist hates the sloppy way character C dresses although the protagonist would never express it to character C.

Or it could be before a fight. Protagonist might seem ready to fight the enemies but inside they are scared and unsure if they can lead an entire army to battle.

Thoughts during a conversation between two other people: One thing authors (including me) often miss is what the protagonist is doing while other people are talking. Are they observing what those people are doing with body language? Or, are they only tuning in when something interesting pops up and other times letting their mind wander?

Think of all those times you stood around and listened to two people in your group talking to each other. What do you do? Do you try to participate or just stand back and wait for them to be done? What do you notice? Any body language that stands out? Any of your own body language that stands out?

Emotions: Characters have emotions one way or another. Otherwise the reader will be bored reading a story about a character who has zero emotions (positive or negative). How can a character be a character without any character? You also can’t just say, “he smiled” every single time though. You need to add a bit extra to that. You need to describe some personal traits of the characters.

As I noted before, keep in mind that these are depth elements for character depth in the moment such as during a scene or conversation.


Depth Example

In bold blue in the next example are moments of depth (in a story I wrote on the spot for the purpose of this article).

Clearing her throat, a nervous habit of hers, Susie asked, “So, what’s your favorite animal?”

(Protagonist recognizes a personal trait of Susie.)

“I like cats.” Sam exclaimed. “They’re so cute.”

“Me, too. Especially fluffy ones.” She smirked and Sam wrinkled his nose as he grinned.

(Protagonist recognizes a personal trait of Sam.)

“Yeah the fluffy ones.” He laughed and she giggled alongside him.

I frowned at that. Susie never seemed to enjoy being around my cat. My fluffy cat. Is she saying those things so that Sam will like her more? Sam said something quietly to Susie making her blush and twirl her hair, turning my otherwise shy best friend into a hopeless romantic. I held back from rolling my eyes.

(Protagonist reacting to conversation going around her.)

{Breaking it down: It shows she is a relatively negative or bitter person. She’s obviously bitter about how Susie is acting around Sam such as observing that Susie is saying things to make Sam like her more, and the protagonist sees this as negative calling her friend “a hopeless romantic”. This paragraph also shows the reader – although from the protagonist’s perspective – that Susie might have a crush on Sam, that she twirls her hair when she blushes or when she is flirting, and she is usually shy and the protagonist’s best friend.}

“So Cathy, how’s work?” Sam turned back to me and I blinked, sending those thoughts away.

(Just a bit more depth to the protagonist who had obviously been caught up in her negative thoughts.)

“Work’s good, I guess.” I shrugged, adjusting my knapsack as it dug into my shoulders. I couldn’t wait for my new, better one to arrive tomorrow if the delivery goes okay.

{Breaking it down: This might not be very intuitive but the fact that this is what she notices while talking about work, while talking to Sam, shows her indifference to the two. She is more concerned about her knapsack digging into her shoulders and if the new one will arrive on time. If this kind of indifference consistently shows up in the story, you can say then that this is the protagonist’s character.}


You must remember,

a character is not just a name with occasional emotions and maybe a few descriptions on what they look like. That’s just a flat character.

You need to fill them out and make them human (or give them personality in cases of non-human characters). What makes us human? What shows the depth of a character? Well, exactly those four elements I talked about:

  • Individual traits
  • Inner reaction vs Outwards reaction
  • Thoughts during a conversation between two other people
  • Emotions

 

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