"The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat." E.M. Forster
For many readers, a novel not populated with engaging, believable characters isn’t worth finishing. The author of a novel in progress can feel that same lack of motivation. If the main characters seem flat even to their creator, finishing the manuscript will be a grind.
Readers want to become entranced by fictional characters. Readers want to be drawn in and wonder, "What will the character do next?" Readers crave characters that are consistent enough to be recognizable and plausible, yet possess a potential for change. Round characters compel readers to turn the page.
“The real question isn’t whether the characters are likeable,” says Professor Timothy Spurgin of Lawrence University. The professor makes an important point. Would you choose to pal around with Harry Angstrom, the protagonist in John Updike’s four “Rabbit” novels? Probably not. He’s not very likeable.
Get a copy of James Leo Herlihy’s novel “Midnight Cowboy.” The two main characters are rootless hustlers. Owing to their well-defined, round personalities, the story of Ratso and Joe is compelling, moving reading.
Professor Spurgin contends that readers are fascinated by characters that embody a sensitive, insightful understanding of human motivations. Round characters possess emotional depth or psychological complexity. Readers feel satisfied and rewarded for investing time in a novel peopled with round characters.
Developing round characters is rewarding and stimulating for their creators, too.
Flat or cardboard characters aren’t bad. They serve a purpose. You need both types in a story.
Jotting down character sketches before writing a story enhances an author's ability to develop rounded characters. Sketches aid in creating characters with backgrounds different from the author's own. One author can and must create many kinds of characters.
Character sketches include basic biographical data: Age, gender, birth date, place of birth, level of education and so on.
Your challenge is to flesh out the data bones. If your character was born in the United States of America in the 1950s, President Kennedy’s assassination will be a poignant memory. Knowing this, you can incorporate the weight of that memory into an argument about gun control. Another example: if the character has a G.E.D, how does he feel about not graduating from high school? How do those feelings pop up in thoughts, words and behavior when his teenager is graduating or when he meets a woman at a party?
Brainstorm a list of questions about your characters. Then answer those questions about your characters before you work on the story. Knowing the answers will help you give characters depth when you write. Caveat: Do not feel obligated to work the answers to every question into the story. Just knowing the answers gives you authority.
This is a sampling of questions I might use to help me develop a protagonist’s personality.
Does the character:
• Fudge numbers on income tax forms? Or cheat on school tests?
• Buy drinks for everybody or accept drinks bought for her?
• Hate or love surprises?
• Mingle and schmooze at parties or stay in one spot and let people come to her?
• Kiss and talk to animals or ignore them?
• Buy only what is on her shopping list or buy whatever strikes her fancy?
• Occupy a small space with legs crossed, arms close to sides, head bowed or use a lot of space with legs open, arms out, head moving, fingers splayed?
• Initiate touching, kissing, lovemaking or wait passively until another character makes overtures?
• Tell other people's secrets or keep them in confidence?
• Feel proud of or ashamed of her hometown, her parents, her siblings?
The purpose of describing events in a novel is to show how your characters behave in normal situations. Without this, readers cannot interpret characters' behavior in stressful situations. Round characters at some point of the plot trajectory act out of character, surprising readers in a convincing way.
Think of people you know fairly well. Has their behavior ever surprised you? It surprised me when my super-introverted husband attended his 30th high school reunion. When my friend’s honor roll daughter sprayed graffiti in the middle school gym. When the middle-aged, mousey woman next door set out on a transcontinental motorcycle trip. Real people can inspire you as you create fictional people.
Placing characters in situations provoking them to act out of character is "showing, not telling." Readers deduce from a character's atypical reactions that she is experiencing strong, conflicting emotions - strong enough to pull her from her personality's magnetic north.
Once you know how your main characters habitually interact with the world around them, you’re ready to answer two vital questions:
1. What situation does the character typically avoid?
2. What outcome does the character desperately want (or want to prevent) that compels him to purposely step into that situation?
The answers to those two questions can drive your storyline and give you a climax to work toward.
Round characters possess emotional complexity. The sentence “Jasmine felt betrayed and yet oddly justified,” is informative. There is nothing wrong with that sentence. The sentence discloses Jasmine’s emotional state.
How can the author reveal more of Jasmine’s emotional weather pattern? How can the author dig deeper into the main character’s psyche without resorting to writing a string of dull, declarative sentences? The job at hand is to communicate the character’s inner self as well as the outer, public self.
The job of creating round characters is made easier with a set of tools. The tools or devices authors use to express a character’s memories and desires are the same tools flesh and blood humans use.
Here are a few tools that can help transform a flat character into a deeper, rounder one:
• Snippets of an image or sensation from a night-time dream compared to the character’s current mindset or emotion.
• A letter the character writes in high passion and then tears up. Or not.
• Ticket stub, report card, photo, sketch, certificate of achievement, eulogy or other ephemera the character finds accidentally or unearths on purpose, and reacts to.
• An email, text message, twitter or blog the character obsessively re-reads.
• Memories that float up that echo the character’s current predicament.
• A fantasy the main character harbors.
• Misinformation the character refuses to revise or correct. (“She didn’t bother telling the man she was Mrs. Nevin, not Miss Nevin.)
• Spoken words that contradict the character’s feelings. (“No, really. Everything’s fine.”)
• Weaknesses or flaws. Readers are more likely to empathize with a protagonist who has flaws like the rest of us.
Give your character physical tags that indicate what's occurring within the character. Remember Clement C. Moore's Santa Claus who "Lay his finger aside his nose . . ."? That tag signaled that Santa would be whooshing up the chimney.
One of my characters rubs her stiff neck when she tells white lies. As her lies grow, her pain in the neck worsens. Another character tugs his earlobe when he feels emotionally cornered.
Including metaphors from nature can uncover a character’s struggles. A story about a farm girl wrestling with her conscience includes an unobtrusive, revealing clue with “. . . two sparrows tussled in the dust." That image is more evocative than flatly stating that the girl was in conflict with herself.
Creating round characters with discernable traits and habits who then undergo believable change as a result of conflict requires planning and inventing. Round characters which are more dynamic, complex and unpredictable than stereotypical, flat ones are more interesting to read about. And to create.
Published in Writers' Journal