Character Depth– What Really Works?

I’ve seen it hundreds of times over the course of my many years writing:

Character building in the form of “Interview Sheets” or “Character Charts.”

You know the drill; you have this wonderful little application for you as the narrator or you as your character to fill out for an in-depth study of history, quirks, personality, thought process, appearance, and more.

But my question always ends up being: How much does this help? I’ve tried it and found that I end up just wasting time on trying to flesh out characters who would rather add skin to bone in their own time.  Of course, these character “cheat sheets” are only supposed to provide an outline, some inspiration, but I’ve yet to find any.

For me, my characters become rounder as I write. I’ve yet to have any sort of problem with this style and have often found it preferable to the reader. If your character is narrating in the first person POV, why would she comment on her long golden-brown hair in the first five pages of the novel? I know when I tell a story, what I was wearing or how my hair looked become totally unnecessary details in the telling. If an omniscient is telling the story, why would the narrator need to convey your character’s happiest memory if it will never have any impact on the story at hand?

In this way, writing for myself is easier because my characters unveil themselves slowly– and as a reader, I appreciate the same.

I will go out of my way to find fitting names for each character. Oftentimes, they denote something in personality, history, or main objective, even if the correlation is a small one. I like to create pathways (something tangible I can reference later) from one character to the next and their impact on the story. I will give them age ranges, base descriptions, and occasionally will outline certain personality aspects. Beyond that, it all comes out in-text.

In that case, though, what else can be done to help make a character more “real?”

More importantly: What do YOU do to help make your characters more real?

I’d love to hear some input. Especially if you have a really rockin’ alternative to the character chart.

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4 thoughts on “Character Depth– What Really Works?

  1. Dawne Webber says:

    Nice post. My characters come to life pretty much the same way your characters do, down to the fitting names. If I get stuck or find I’m not connecting with a certain character, I just start writing some kind of backstory. Nothing planned or outlined, just whatever flows. That usually helps me to connect.Sometimes I even end up using it the actual story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • srmeisinger says:

      Very nice! Thanks for the input. I used to do something similar, writing out a sort of “flashback” to an integral moment in a character’s life. It really can get the juices flowing!

      I’ve also been letting certain songs– melodies or lyrics –come to describe thought processes or a particular spot on the “emotional spectrum” for a given character and even inspire scenes for interaction.

      I’m lately very fascinated by how one can really develop on a mild inspiration from any given work of art. 🙂


  2. Jim Snell says:

    This is a really interesting question, and one I’ve been kind of chewing on for a bit as I’m working on a novel. I read somewhere that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote out character bios for his characters but I’ve never been able to do that. Kind of like real people in life, I sort of discover more about them as I go along.

    In my current WIP I’ve tried something a bit different. I’ve based 2 of the main characters on longtime friends. And completely made up all the rest. But if I gave a reader just that information, I’m not sure they’d be able to pick out the two I based on my friends. I guess I’m saying, in a sense, the other characters have become just as real to me as I’ve been writing it.

    What I’ve been trying to puzzle out a bit more, though, is what is it that really gets readers engaged with a certain character? Just as with character bio sheets and that sort of thing, writers are told characters have to have some flaw/s, something they’re struggling with, an objective – or series of objectives – and they all should tie to the main conflict and theme of the story. I probably don’t do that sort of thing so well. If I think of real life friends, I couldn’t tell you what flaws they’re struggling with – besides getting through the days, paying rent, trying to live a full life with a soul-sucking job … that kind of thing.

    But I know that sometimes I read a story, or see a movie/tv show, and I really just couldn’t care less about those people. (Those are the tv series that I quit watching.) I tend to read detective/thriller novels with some speculative fiction thrown in. So a lot of those are series characters. And from going to readings, it’s easy to see that some – maybe most of those who keep buying the books – do it because they really, really *love* those characters.

    I was just reading a Paris Review interview with noir writer (think that’s probably the best description) James Ellroy. He seems to be really OCD when it comes to writing books. He talked about his outline – yes, outline – for one book being hundreds of pages long. He mentioned he sits down and starts writing about the characters first. And, come to think of it, best-selling sci-fi/horror writer Jonathan Maberry has said he has extremely detailed character bios before he starts writing – and figures that info will play out over several books.

    Maybe I’m not that organized; maybe my brain just doesn’t work that way.

    Then again, maybe we – and by we, I mean I – get a bit too wrapped up in stuff like this. For instance, I’ve read several Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child … but I really had no idea that Reacher is a character who’s supposed to be 6-foot-5 until a bunch of readers got all upset that Tom Cruise, who’s maybe a foot shorter than that, had been cast to play him in a movie. I guess I’d just been reading along and that stuff didn’t register, or whatever, but not knowing that bit of description didn’t make me like the books any less.


    • srmeisinger says:

      You definitely raise some good points! Plenty of fantastic books have little to no real “definition” for their characters, and other authors seem to thrive on having as much detail known as possible– whether for their own benefit or for ours.

      I suppose it all comes down to personal preference on the author’s side and for his or her audience, as well. Just like I enjoy Jack Ketchum’s short-and-sweet style of horror, plenty of humans would rather read a 1000-page brick so long as “Stephen King” is written on the cover.

      We’re all as different as book characters, and as different as their creation.

      Thanks for the input. 😉


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