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Three Techniques to Add Heart and Mind to Shallow Characters

2016 July 11

Shallow CharactersI’m in the midst of edits for my next release. I love the story. The complexities and the twist and turns have me feeling as if I’m on a continual roller coaster of fun. This is my subjective analysis, I know. Right now, I’m tickled that this is a story I can’t wait for others to read. Usually, as I’m coming to the end of a project, I worry if it is good enough to put forth for my readers.

However, as I dug deep into the story, I found some shallow areas, and each of those little pits had to do with characterization. I’m being honest here, my hero and heroines are the ones that sank into the short abyss and needed to be plucked out, cleaned up, and the holes filled, I’d like to share some ideas with others who might run across the same problem in their fiction.

This first technique must be explained carefully, but let me put the word out there. Those who know how I feel about this element of fiction will gasp. The word is backstory. Now, for the careful explanation. All characters (both real and imagined) have a backstory. The most colorful individuals have faced events in their lives that make them unique, that make them think differently from others, that either make them fearful or infuse them with bravery, that make them sad or cause them to hide the sadness behind a happy face. I can’t get around that truth. In fact, if you read my stories, the characters’ backstories are very important. However, many writers use backstory as filler. They’ve missed the beauty of this element of fiction. Not only does backstory make a character unique, but it also adds fodder for the front story. Working on a character’s backstory, knowing all you can about them is key to building character. The problem, though, with so many authors, is that they’ve worked on this intensive study of their characters’ pasts, and they feel it is a waste not to stop the story and place block upon block upon block of what happened in the past right in the midde of the front story.

Rather, backstory should be gleaned for the little nuggets that can be placed along the path of the reader. Those nuggets should come forth as front story and nothing else. Never, ever let anything stop the front story. Bring your past to the future, and keep it in the moment. Don’t linger in the past. All that’s needed are those little golden gems. A reader should be placed on a forward path to run across a small nugget here and there, reach down (or turn the page) to grasp that piece of gold, and continue forward. Don’t give it all away, though. Each nugget is a piece of the puzzle that will be solved as the story moves on. Placed just right, those nuggets pull out the truth of a character and bond them to the reader. When the character is shallow no more, the reader plunges into their lives and hopefully will not want to be moved from the story world. They’ll wish the journey could continue forever. A writer’s job is to bring the story to a satisfying close that makes a reader wish to linger for just a while more.

Another technique I use is to study the roles of different actors and actresses. Some of my friends simply use a picture of someone they’ve seen, and they develop a character around that. This is my usual technique with secondary characters, so I know it can work. I tried this method with my hero in my work at hand. I searched and searched for just the right face to put a character behind. That face is still my character, but it wasn’t until I concentrated on how he moved and how he acted with others in various roles, that he began to grow and to open himself up to me. This particular face behind the character came from a man who plays a dark role in the one show he is known for. My hero can be moody because (see the first technique above) his backstory has some depth to it, but he’s a nice guy most of the time. I couldn’t rely on the dark role to carry my character forward. Relying on one role of an actor or actress tends to build a cardboard character. So, I had to search deep to find clips of this particular man in real life and in other roles, and what I found put flesh and bone and heart into my hero.

As noted, be careful with this technique. Don’t mimic a screenwriter in building your character. Examine the many facets of the roles the actor or actress plays. My favorite actor to develop characters from is Andrew Lee Potts. Quite simply, the man has a wide range of acting abilities. I first ran across this actor in a movie called Alice. He played Hatter, and in that role he made American women swoon. Before Alice, though, he played Connor Temple in the British show Primeval. In Primeval, Mr. Potts played a quirky genius who specialized in dinosaurs and later worked on developing scientific equipment. His portrayal took the character through a range of emotions and behaviors. In Primeval, he was hopelessly in love with one of the other characters. In Alice, he was a brash, reluctant hero. In other movie and television roles he was tough, homicidal, mentally challenged, mean-spirited, and often funny: a very wide range and a pot of gold for characterization.

This last little secret is what I use when my characters are particularly tight-lipped and I need to psychoanalyze them a bit. Allow the character to write a journal entry. Just as in real life, we often pour our souls into our private writings, our characters, which are pieces of us, feel secure in doing the same. While I have no trouble sitting down and talking to my characters–they’re chattering at me all the time–sometimes, they don’t want to share everything. That was the case in my novel Better Than Revenge. I had a conflict-filled scene going between my heroine, Issie, and her sister, nicknamed Sissy. While the girls waged a war with words, Sissy’s husband, an ambitious prosecutor who’d risen to his position by his wrongful prosecution of Issie’s fiance, sat by and watched. I’d known this scene was coming. In fact, the scene was a pivotal turn in the novel, but I couldn’t get to the heart of why these two very different sisters, who seemingly loved each other, were at odds. Issie, who always tried to protect her baby sister, wasn’t being forthcoming, so I  took out a journal, a real paper journal; I put a date on it, and I became Issie. She poured out her heart, breaking mine as she did. She explained that her sister had been lied to by her husband, and worse, Sissy had believed her husband over Issie, drawing conclusions about Issie’s hero, Michael, that were wholly untrue. Since Michael’s imprisonment, Issie has not seen the man she loved. In her mind, he left her behind when released from prison. The argument between the sisters was prompted by the fact that her brother-in-law’s manipulations of the facts have been reported and a sadistic rapist, whom he urged  Issie not to prosecute to protect her unborn child, is about to be released. Because she followed her brother-in-law’s advice, the rapist never knew about his son, and her silence was surely what sent Michael to prison. Under the laws of that particular state, her son, whom she loves more than life, despite the circumstances of his birth is in jeopardy should, upon his release, his father ever learn of his existence.

Can you see how that journal entry not only helped to add heart and emotion to the characters and the scene, but also gave me insight into a family dynamic gone horribly wrong and desperately in need of repair? That journal explored a part of the story that truly became its heart and soul, a plot I wouldn’t have ventured into without the character’s input. Also, with that information in my writer’s arsenal, you can imagine how furious a reader could become at the man who set all of this conflict in motion and sat back and allowed his wife to do the arguing. So, those emotions flowing through your character can pour into your reader as well.

Characters can be a challenge. There’s no doubt about that. I struggle with characterization in every novel I write, and until each of the characters, whether they are lead or secondary, dig themselves out of their shallowness, my job as an author is not complete. I’d love to hear from other writers on the techniques used to add flesh and sinew, heart and mind to your character creations.

Books Collage

Fay Lamb (The Tactical Editor)  is an author, editor, and writing coach, who loves to work with authors to help them meet their goals.Her emotionally charged stories remind the reader that God is always in the details. Fay has contracted three series. Stalking Willow and Better Than Revenge

Art of Characterization Cover FINAL FRONT (2)Books 1 and 2 in the Amazing Grace romantic suspense series are currently available for purchase. Charisse and Libby the first two novels in her The Ties That Bind contemporary romance series have been released. Fay has also collaborated on two Christmas novella projects: The Christmas Three Treasure Hunt, A Ruby Christmas, and the Write Integrity Press romance novella series, which includes  A Dozen Apologies, The Love Boat Bachelor, and Unlikely Merger, which are now available in print or eBook as The Heart Seekers. Her adventurous spirit has taken her into the realm of non-fiction with The Art of Characterization: How to Use the Elements of Storytelling to Connect Readers to an Unforgettable Cast.Future releases from Fay are: Everybody’s Broken and Frozen Notes, Books 3 and 4 of Amazing Grace and Hope and Delilah, Books 3 and 4 from The Ties that Bind.

Fay loves to meet readers, and you can find her on her personal Facebook page, her Facebook Author page, and at The Tactical Editor on Facebook. She’s also active on Twitter. Then there are her blogs: On the Ledge, Inner Source, and the Tactical Editor. And, yes, there’s one more: Goodreads. Anyone interested in learning more about Fay’s freelance editing and her coaching, should contact her at


2 Responses Post a comment
  1. June Foster permalink
    July 11, 2016

    You’ve touched on an element of writing we all need to improve on, especially me. Thanks for the suggestions.

    • Fay Lamb permalink*
      July 11, 2016

      June, you’re very welcome. Thanks for the encouragement.

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