3 simple ways to flesh out your characters

When I was 14 I faced homelessness as my family went through an unexpected financial crisis. At the time, I didn’t understand the intricacies of mortgages and repossession but I did understand that my mother was crying and my father was being strong for both of them.

It would be almost three years before my family was reunited.

This post identifies three ways to flesh out your characters. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, writing three-dimensional characters is the heart of successful authorship. So let’s dive right in.

What emotions did you feel as you read my opening paragraphs?

Most likely you felt sadness. Perhaps a sense of understanding if you’ve faced/are facing a similar situation. But, riding on the heels of your emotions, is probably an automatic empathy. Most of us feel a degree of compassion when we read about people who face debilitating challenges or seemingly insurmountable emotional hurdles.

And that’s our first strategy.

1. Make your characters human

By this I mean, have your character(s) face realistic/relatable problems. Very few people want to read about someone who leads an idyllic life. We want stories that tug at our hearts, stories that allow us to see ourselves reflected in the men and women of your story.

Does your character encounter a challenge that can be understood by the majority of your prospective readers? This can be a major emotional hurdle like the loss of a child, a turbulent relationship, or perhaps an economic setback like the one I previously described.

My latest novel, In the Dead of the Night (releasing on 3/9), zeroes in on the resilience of a fictitious couple in the tail end of the Great War (WW1). In fact, the entire series fuses scenarios that are familiar to most of us—bereavement, infidelity, spiritual insecurity—with places and times that we can only imagine.

This blend of “different times but similar problems” easily sets the stage for writing that entertains but can also edify.

2. Give him/her wings

I started out by sharing just one of many trials life has thrown my way. But the story doesn’t end there. From homelessness, racism, and living below the poverty line, I went on to graduate early from high school, earned advanced degrees in university and went into the combined fields of business and education. I first broke six figure income early in my thirties.

To me, it’s a success story that I can only attribute to God’s grace. But that paves the way for my second point.

Be sure that your character isn’t crushed beneath the weight of life’s circumstances.

It’s okay for a character to be afraid. To hesitate and even to fail. But ask yourself if your character is showing the kind of perseverance that will have readers cheering him/her on. It’s easy to write a “whiner”, but you want a character that will connect with readers. And that’s someone who rises to the occasion.

Now here’s a caveat.

You want to be careful here because, giving your characters wings can decrease the extent to which readers relate to your character. After all, we’re all meant to walk different paths in life. So how does an author balance giving a character wings while keeping him/her relatable?

The answer lies in our third strategy.

3. Show your hero/heroine’s flaws.

So, when I was in college, it came the point that I wanted to drop out. I made the mistake of telling my brother-in-law what I was thinking. And… he gave me some really awesome advice. And I quote,

Shut up or I’ll smack you.

With much love, your brother-in-law

I’m smiling as I type!

While it might seem strange advice, it was exactly what I needed to hear and it kept me going through some pretty rough academic times. But here’s my point: flaws are good.

Whether we’re writing novels or biographies, showing our characters’ failed attempts, personality flaws and even bad habits, can add yet another layer of dimension that is a critical in getting readers to emotionally “invest” in our characters.

Most of my work is historical/political fiction, so I’m going to share a brief biographical example from Peter Stark’s Young Washington which I enjoyed reading recently.

George Washington’s place in history as THE Founding Father is secure. Secure to the point that he can be very difficult to humanize without running the risk of offending someone. So, while reading Stark’s biography, I truly appreciated the following statement.

Naïve and self-absorbed, the 22 year old officer {Washington} accidentally ignited the French and Indian War…”

Peter Stark

We know that Washington went on to overcome incredible obstacles— obstacles that don’t confront the average American. But the author humanizes him by showing the flaws that, while obvious, didn’t hinder Washington from becoming the man we love and admire.

Let’s recap:

Authors of fiction and non-fiction can easily flesh out their characters by:

  • Humanizing them/making them relatable
  • Giving them the ability to overcome their hurdles
  • Showing their flaws in the process

If this article was helpful, consider buying my book Write 3D Characters which features curated exercises and additional strategies for writing characters that walk off the page.

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JP Robinson
JP Robinson

JP Robinson is the President of Lancaster Christian Writers Association, minister, and educator. He has over 15 years experience in education and marketing. JP’s novels have garnered praise by industry leaders such as Publisher’s Weekly.

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