Writers in the Storm

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February 28, 2022

Dig Deeper than Descriptions to Create Nuanced Characters

by Tiffany Yates Martin

There's a common fallacy of human thinking that you may be as guilty of as I sometimes am.

“He's a jackass….” “That woman is nothing but a gossip.” “I'm such a scatterbrain!”

In cognitive behavioral therapy this is called labeling and mislabeling, reducing a person to a single behavior, and it can become an automatic thought pattern.

When we do it to ourselves it can decimate our self-worth. When we do it to other people it's a way of dismissing and distancing ourselves from them, slotting them into a behavior category rather than seeing them for who they are. When we do it on a societal level it leads to divisiveness and polarization.

When we do it in our storytelling it reduces our characters to categories, making them one-dimensional and wooden.

It's so easy to fall into this trap, largely because of the way we often learn to go about creating our characters: We literally label their characteristics. It's how we may have been taught to start shaping our characters, and how we create a logline or a synopsis or a query letter: “X is a hard-driving ‘master of the universe’ stockbroker” or “Y is a ruthless former sniper with PTSD,” etc.

These can be practical shortcuts or a starting place for character development, but if we rely too heavily on those reductive definitions as we’re writing, we may hamper ourselves from creating real, nuanced, believable characters.

Once you’ve sketched out your character in broad strokes, how do you start filling in the color, texture, and detail that make them spring off the page and into readers’ imaginations?

4 Ways to Create Nuanced Characters

1. Show us the behavior; don't tell us the label.

Characters, like all human beings, are built and revealed one action, one behavior, one decision at a time. We are shaped moment by moment. Cumulatively our behaviors may create a pattern that can be characterized with certain labels or descriptions, but your job as author is to simply give the reader the data points and let them come to the conclusion that you want to lead them to.

One of my favorite essayists, thinkers, and TED talkers, Tim Urban, describes this memorably in one of his thought-provoking posts: Life is a picture but we live in a pixel. The author shows the characters’ pixels; it’s the reader who forms the picture--that’s what makes readers feel they know your characters and become a direct part of the story.

But simply showing a greedy character behaving in a greedy way, for instance, can still result in a plastic, one-dimensional character. So how do you bring them more fully to life?

2. Dig deeper.

People do the things they do for reasons that make total sense to them. Your job as the author is to figure out what those reasons are.

  • Where do their attitudes and actions and behaviors come from? Don't just show the characters acting in ways, say, a greedy person would act.
  • What motivations, objectives, intentions, and thought processes make them make choices that suggest whatever that trait is?
  • How is their behavior justified, from their perspective?

Let's say you have a character you’ve labeled as kind.

  • What drives her kindness?
  • Was she picked on as a girl and she knows how it feels and doesn't want anyone else to feel like that?
  • Was she raised in an atmosphere where kindness was the ultimate value—or is her kindness driven by guilt over something she feels she must atone for?
  • Does doing kind things make her feel good about herself…or better than other people…or does she like the shine it puts on her with others or that they feel in her debt?

Considering your characters’ motivations this way and digging down to what drives them is what allows you to create faceted, believable characters. Then they aren't just playing a role or operating under those narrow character traits. They are acting in ways that are consistent with their belief system and view of the world—and that allows readers to extrapolate from those behaviors who this character is as a fully fleshed person.

3. Be specific and concrete.

Vague generalizations result in vague, generalized characters.

  • What does “being kind” actually look like in practice?
  • Is it her outward actions—donating money to nonprofits or causes she believes in, volunteering at a soup kitchen, helping little old ladies cross the street?

Is it her day-to-day actions?

  • Does she discreetly tell a coworker who’s just about to make a big presentation that she has kale in her teeth?
  • Bite her tongue on an unkind truth in favor of a compassionate redirection?

Or is it in her attitude and approach to people.

  • Does she always expect the best of others—or bring out the best in them?
  • Is she positive and encouraging? Offer a gentle, nonjudgmental ear when a friend is in pain?

And in all cases, what does that specifically look like—can you let us see it on the page through some concrete action, behavior, or exchange? Show isn’t always stronger than tell, but in bringing your characters to rich, vivid life for readers it usually is.

4. Don't forget contrasts and contradictions.

Kind people can act in cruel ways. Cruel people may find gentleness in their heart for a child or a dog. In creating characters who feel authentic and engaging, paint in shades of gray, rather than black-and-white.

People are more than one thing. And there are hosts of reasons people are the way they are and do the things they do. Rather than relying on broad surface definitions, letting yourself plumb the depth and breadth of who your characters are as whole people will bring them—and your stories—fully, memorably to life.

* * * * * *

About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your WritingUnder the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren't(Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.

Top Image by Lothar Dieterich from Pixabay

25 comments on “Dig Deeper than Descriptions to Create Nuanced Characters”

    1. I feel the same way--if I get caught up in "thinking" too much with my editorial brain while first-drafting, I freeze myself up. Like so much of writing, I think most of the deep work takes place in revision. Thanks for the comment.

  1. You've given me a lot to think about. These suggestions will help me a lot with my WIP. I now plan to look at this in layers, covering all these points.
    Fantastic post!
    Thanks, Tiffany.

  2. Hmmm. This could be the reason I'm struggling with my current short story. I thought I had done a character analysis, but I'm having trouble connecting with my protagonist. If I'm having trouble, so will the reader. I think I'll go back and think about her some more. thank you for the extra thought-provoking tip . . . and a lot more work 🙂

  3. Great post! I especially love when an author shows us what's behind an evil antagonist, or rather, what's inside. The layers--some good, some bad, some evil. You can almost sympathize with them, but you know they have to have their comeuppance.

    1. YES! I love me a good, juicy, gray-area villain--the complex kind. Love rooting for comeuppance...but also partly for redemption, if the two hang in the balance. I always think antagonists are some of the most fun characters to write and to explore. Thanks for the comment, Barb.

  4. Tiffany, you already know I love this post. I take a lot of Margie Lawson classes and she too will say things like "dig deeper" or "you can do better." That's the hardest part of being a writer is revising your snappy little idea into a real live multi-layered story. It's hard and amazing and wonderful. And hard. 🙂

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