Creating depth is a vital part of sucking readers into your story. No one wants to read about cardboard cut-outs with no drive, no secrets, no goals or personal hurdles. A lot of the hate directed at the Twilight protagonist, Bella Swan, is because she’s just a mannequin for hot supernatural men to happen to. Without depth, your readers will utter the eight deadly words of fiction:
I don’t care what happens to these people. ~ Dorothy Jones Heydt
If your audience don’t care, they won’t read. It’s as simple as that. Depth is a way of making them care, making them buy into the character’s journey and personal development. Part of this is making sure your character isn’t perfect, as Mary Sues are boring at best; part of it is giving them characteristic (clue’s in the name) traits that bring them to ‘life’, such as Hermione Granger’s bibliophilia or Harry Dresden’s love for his battered old car. These can tie into the plot, or even generate subplots which give the whole story more depth. They can be habitual behaviours which serve no greater purpose than to make the character identifiable. In a perfect world, there’s enough depth that different elements of the character do both.
- One way of making sure your characters are both flawed and deep is to look at some of the possible psychosis that drive them. Don’t tell me they’re all totally sane. Nobody’s totally sane. If you think you know someone who is, they’re just doing a really good job of faking it. Besides, given the kinds of situations you’re likely to be throwing at your characters, I’d be surprised if they didn’t develop a few mental hiccups. PTSD, for one. I’ve started following a blog called Think Ink which looks at character development through the eyes of a psychologist. I highly recommend a read.
- Another technique – one you should be doing anyway – is to ask the list of development questions. There are tons of lists out there (just google ‘character development questions’) so have a look and find one that works for you. I did come across one recently that was incredibly detailed and deep but now I can’t find it again. I’ll keep looking and update this post if I locate that safe place I stashed it in.
- Extra Credits have an interesting tutorial on creating depth versus complexity. It’s mainly appropriate only for designing games, rather than story-telling, but if you have six minutes to spare, it’s worth a watch. Their stuff on complexity isn’t really as applicable, but the view on depth – and the importance of character agency – is totally relevant to writing.
The role of character agency, incidentally, is quite an interesting one. I was having this debate with my friend The Belgian earlier in the week. Does a character need agency? Actually, no, they don’t. There are plenty of good characters in literature who have little to no agency in their own right – Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games being a prime example. With the exception of “I volunteer!” at the beginning, everything that happens throughout basically the entire trilogy happens to her. She’s still an interesting character, although I do wonder whether she could have been more complex and interesting if she’d either had more agency or if her growth arc had been to acquire it. Don’t get me wrong, agency is a very highly recommended thing to have but it isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all of characterisation. Depth, however – that, you can’t do without.
The same applies to settings, too. If they’re Hollywood backdrops – a skin of paint and canvas held up by wooden props – then you severely limit yourself in what you can do with them. You certainly can’t risk the audience looking too closely. If, on the other hand, your setting has a depth of its own then it becomes a selling point of the story. Examples include London in Kate Griffen’s Matthew Swift series, the cities in China Mieville’s The City & The City, Sarantium in Guy Gavriel Kaye’s Sailing to Sarantium, and there are tons more out there.
In summary, don’t skimp on the details, layers or murky complexities of your world and the people who live there. They are what gets an audience hooked.