Give your characters different levels of depth and develop them properly for your readers.

Lizbeth Salander

Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an absolute favorite book character among many readers. Her dark tendencies of appearance shade her brilliant mind. Her tormented past has her playing the line between villain and heroine. She is the pocket ace that might tip any hand to her favor, or cause her own doom.

Wouldn’t it be great to write a character like this for your own novel? How does one do this?

Four Levels Deep

Character writing in novels is a complex and lengthy process. Some authors create characters so deep we, as the reader, wish that this character was a real person. Other authors don’t do enough, which leaves them flat on the page and has the reader uninterested.

In order to make characters that our readers can believe in, we need to consider the way readers take information in about our characters. And one easy way is to break a character down into four different levels.

1. The Picture

First thing is to start with what they look like. Imagine that you happened to browse through a friends phone and see a photo of the following man:

Daniel wears a leather jacket with worn sleeves and a frayed hood. His beard is not groomed, but his comb over doesn’t leave a hair astray. His boots are as dusty as his eyes.

Notice that this is all very basic information, essentially, just physical descriptions: What they are wearing, what their eyes are like, facial hair, etc. Although this might tell you a great deal about them at first glance, first impressions are not everything.

2. The Video

The next step is to bring them to life through their actions. To demonstrate, you scroll to the right on your friends phone and come to a video of the estranged man in the grungy jacket. You press play.

Some things you can tell from appearance. Others are hidden inside your characters

He stomps his boots to dust off the snow as he enters the coffee shop. He rubs his dirty hands together to get them warm. People glance up from their books and conversations and wince at his appearance. He stares straight ahead, lightly placing his heavy boots one in front of the other toward the counter. He says nothing as the barista awaits his decision, then reaches into his coat to pull out a giant wad of cash.

This next level consists mainly of actions that your character makes, as if you are watching a video with no sound or dialog. How they move, their mannerisms, and how they physically interact with others tells a great deal about who they are. But again, actions do not speak as loud as words.

3. The Meeting

Listening to what your characters have to say can give more information to the reader about who they are more than their actions and appearance. Your friend with the phone shows you another video with the man interacting with the barista.

“Could I get a Carmel Macchiato please?” Daniel says.
“Yes sir,” says the barista, “…I would have taken you for a black coffee kind of guy.”
“No, not today,” the man says. He pulls out a $100 bill and slides it toward the teller.
“What’s your name?” The barista puts a pen to the white cup.
“Put the name Chelsea if you would, please,” he says. The man stuffs his hands into the coat pocket and looks down at the counter. The barista raises an eyebrow.

The third level expresses more about a character mainly through dialog. What a character says to others in your work can speak volumes as to their motivations and their attitudes. This could give us everything we need for a character, but there is one last touch.

4. The Mind Read

Expressing what your character is thinking is the last and final level to expressing an in depth character to your reader.

Daniel didn’t know what else to do. When the cops told him that his wife was dead, he denied it. She will be home, he screamed at them, like she always is after her short run through the trail she always takes. He left the house and walked to a coffee shop toMan Walking in Snowbuy her regular coffee. But instead of turning home, he kept walking uptown. The coffee would grow cold and he would dump it, then search for another coffee shop. But next streets turned into the next town, which became the next state, which became several states. He just can’t face going home.

This is similar to the reader opening up the mind of the character and getting an in-depth understanding of their past, whilst the other characters in the novel are unaware. It’s a powerful tool that allows your readers to know something more than the rest of the novel does, and gives them a reason to like the character despite some of their odd actions.

In Conclusion

Use these different layers interchangeably and learn how to use them well. This will help you build wonderful characters that your readers will follow until the very end.