Developing Greater Psychological Depth in Characters
Giving depth to your characters can be difficult. How do you make them realistic or relatable enough to get your readers to care? How do you flesh them out so fully that they become more than just fiction? It’s not enough to have an impeccable plot or beautiful world-building. In order for your reader to keep turning the pages, your characters need to be compelling, too.
It is with great pleasure that I welcome Mark Leichliter on Daily (w)rite to deconstruct the process of creating characters with depth and complexity, like those in his crime novel, The Other Side. In this post, he will be taking us through the art of breathing life into your literary creations, surpassing the surface-level to delve deeper into their brains, beliefs, and behavior.
Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” Frequently quite the character himself (to use the vernacular expression) and perhaps not always someone to be trusted, on this one, I think Papa had it right.
Just think about what it would take to write him in your novel or what it would be like to have him in your circle of friends—exhausting, but probably exhilarating too. How would you go about conveying the complexity of such artistic talent and ability to see the world he inhabited wrapped inside a chauvinistic, hot-headed, outwardly bombastic/inwardly self-doubting, fragile, vain man who would ultimately kill himself?
Hemingway embodied internal conflict and contradiction, which made him…well…profoundly human. “Create people, not characters,” and the writer will no doubt be creating complex, contradictory beings to populate readers’ minds. While we might not literally want to hang out with our siblings or parents, our landlords or work mates in the books we read, we should rightfully expect to know characters as well as we know family and be able to speculate with as much texture about those in positions to determine important parts of our lives or those with whom we work daily. The truth, of course, is that we possess more tools to understand the nature and motivations of the people we meet in books than we often have in real life.
Real life. Books enhance it. Books are more than friends or pastimes, they help us make sense of human nature. There’s a moment in the movie Pretty Woman when the Edward Lewis character says, “It’s just that, uh, very few people surprise me.” To which Vivian, his pretty woman, replies, “Yeah, well, you’re lucky. Most of ’em shock the hell outta me.”
I’m in Vivian’s camp on this one. Just when you think you know someone, particularly if you’ve gotten to know them fairly well as they parse out parts of themselves in words and deeds and stories (mostly in stories) over time, they drop something on you that you never expected: a piece of their past, a bad decision, a belief, a sin. They shock us. In books, we are familiar with actions and disclosures that shock us. We expect them. If we like our plots twisty, better still that the people who carry them out are twisty as well.
Will any reader invest in a series that features a one-dimensional protagonist? When you are facing the long haul of a novel or the longer haul of a series, it is psychological depth that carries the day.
Hemingway’s line about creating “living people…not characters” contains within it the essential blueprint for how writers can proceed as well. Rather than thinking about how to “write” a character, think about how we come to know living people.
Well, first off, it takes time. Just like in life, we can’t expect a primary character to reveal the whole of themselves at once. Those with enough importance to be present over large portions of a novel have space to reveal themselves. When we meet people, we gain one impression—often the inaccurate one it turns out. With time and multiple interactions, we get to observe them. We have conversations with them (dialogue). We do things with them whether on the job, on the tennis court, or at the dinner party (action). We meet others who know them and who, after they are out of the room, perhaps talk about them (interaction). We listen to their stories (backstory). We hear them speak about their beliefs or watch them act on them (all of the above).
The one thing we don’t get, that we will never get (unless Jennifer Egan has it right in The Candy House), is the chance to directly enter their minds and engage their thoughts, something we do get if we are inside a book with a first-person narrator or, at arm’s length, in the declarative statements of a third-person narrator. Here’s one rich example of how effectively deep psychology can be accomplished even in third-person from the esteemed Toni Morrison, a passage lifted from her novel Jazz:
I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deep down, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment, she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.”
We could probably describe someone from our own neighborhood with as much detail (if not with such stunning language). What Morrison reminds us is that detail and evocative language also creates context from which we then draw conclusions…much as we do in real life. As a result, in a single paragraph, Violet contains immense depth. She leaves us full of questions.
Would you label any of your friends “shallow” or “simple”? (If your answer is yes, then why are they your friends?) You have witnessed their contradictions and their complexities. Because you care about them, you’ve given these deeper elements of their nature considerable thought. Perhaps, in close friendships, their—and your—contradictions have been the subject of your most intimate conversations.
Don’t we want the people who populate our books to have the same opportunity? Lauren DeStefano, the author of the YA “Chemical Garden” series, sums her stance up well: “The only characters I ever don’t like are ones that leave no impression on me. And I don’t write characters that leave no impression on me.” The characters we all remember leave lasting impressions. Indeed, they become as real to us as any person in our lives.
Now, if you start talking to the people who inhabit books you love, well, then, you’re probably a writer (or should be)!
A Kind of Postscript
For those of you who are writers, here are two quick exercises that can afford the people who live in your mind the chance to reveal themselves:
- Assume your character is present at a large social gathering. Someone who wants to make your character’s acquaintance but who does not know them approaches others at the gathering and asks them to point out your character. How do they respond?
- Your character’s place of residence suffers a sudden catastrophe—think fire, flood, explosion—leaving them with only a minute or two to evacuate. Assuming other loved ones and pets have a way to reach safety, what objects or possessions (remembering it must be something they can carry) does your character take with them?
About Mark Leichliter
Mark Leichliter is the author of the crime novel The Other Side. Writing as Mark Hummel, he is the author of In the Chameleon’s Shadow and Lost & Found: Stories. His is novel Man, Underground debuts in October 2023. His fiction, poetry, and essays have regularly appeared in literary journals including such publications as The Bloomsbury Review, Dogwood, Fugue, Talking River Review, and Zone 3. A former college professor, he has also taught in an independent high school, directed a writers’ conference, and worked as a librarian. He is the founding editor of the nonfiction magazine bioStories. Mark lives in Montana’s Flathead Valley. You can learn more about his work at www.markleichliter.com and at www.markhummelwriter.com.
Is creating depth in your characters something you struggle with? To you, what makes a character great? Who are your favorite literary characters and why?
My literary crime novels, The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon are on Kindle Unlimited now. Add to Goodreads or snag a copy to make my day ! And if you’d like to read a book outside the series, you can check out You Beneath Your Skin. Find all info about my books on my Amazon page or Linktree.
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