Depth of Character

Thoughts on character

Depth of Character, by Nicole Van Den Eng.

Writing is multi-faceted and intensive and takes a lifetime to cultivate. It’s difficult and is a continuously evolving learning process. Most of us write because we are driven to; the end result drives us to learn the details and the how-to. Pursuing improvement, I’m constantly trying to learn new and alternate ways of writing and tips to make things more clear.

One of the more beneficial things I’ve learned recently is the value of human interaction. For some writers, this is one of the earlier things they learn, maybe even what interests them in writing in the first place. Over a lifetime, writers learn things in the order our life seems fit to present them to us.

I thought I had some pretty stable guesses at human nature because, I mean, I grew up around humans too. But people are complicated. You may think you know someone and then they go and do something unexpected that upturns everything you knew as assumption.

Writing is a job done at your computer, alone, devoid of any face-to-face interaction at all. So everything you know about people must come from outside your writing time. I guess that’s why I stick around in Customer Service—the sheer diversity of experiences there are gold, the hard-earned kind of gold, but gold nonetheless.

Sometimes I pause while I’m at work because someone sneezed and I think: you know, everyone sneezes differently. Some people deliberately say “Gesundheit” over “bless you,” and some people deliberately say “God bless you.” Those little things you notice show up in your writing.

After Ursula Le Guin died there was a flurry of interest in her work. I don’t know why that is, but it’s always been that way—someone’s work is more coveted after their death. A book came out recently that’s a compilation of Le Guin’s blog posts titled No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters.

The first collection of entries in the book have to do with age, written when Le Guin was over eighty. It was fascinating to me, feeling quite young at 32 as I’m reading this, to peer into a world rarely explored by Hollywood (as Le Guin would say, outright ignored). It was one of those experiences that remind you of how little you actually know.

Reading, then, gives you vision into the character who does things you don’t understand and thinks things you’ve never thought. Reading let’s us see how other people act. Reading Le Guin’s essays gave me insight into what it’s like to be 80 in the modern world.

The writing process strives to be as complex as human nature because when you write, you strive to create another person—a character. And if you want your character to be believed as a human, they must be just as complicated as a real one.

Another book I’m reading right now is called Story Genius and has helped my character game enormously. The author, Lisa Cron, is a Literary Agent and Story Analyst. She argues that 98% of manuscripts get rejected because 98% of manuscripts don’t have enough character change.

Character change is more than just character arc. We know that there must be character arc in a story: a personal shift over the course of a journey. Character arc would show us an early character who suffers from deeply rooted anger, who sets out in a rage seeking revenge, only to be blocked and demeaned at every turn. Our ending, if it is to be satisfactory, would result in an internal change that allows our character to discover the liberating act of forgiveness.

However, character transformation doesn’t happen solely through outside circumstances. A person changes because of internal conflicts; because their past collides with their present.

In Story Genius, Lisa Cron helps you build scenes that establish why your character is the way she is, what’s happened to her, what she wants most out of life, and what she fears. These are the types of things that make you who you are—the reasons behind your nature. When it comes to designing another person (a character), if you don’t explore their more hidden dimensions, you wind up with superficial actions propelled only by achieving the next action in line.

The entire latter half of Story Genius is geared toward helping you build a plot around your character’s journey (rather than trying to mold character disposition around the already decided plot).

It’s helpful as a writer, to develop the habit of asking why when you see someone acting in a way that you wouldn’t have. What could be the reason, tucked snugly away in their history, they acted the way they did? This is why you sometimes hear of writers people-watching. We go to public places and watch the way people behave when they think no one else is looking, or how they behave toward others, even the way someone dresses can offer insight.

Writing is often a struggle between being an introvert and needing fuel for your stories. Writing is a struggle in a lot of ways, but we yearn for struggle, don’t we? Without struggle, there won’t be improvement.

Character struggle is what lights the fuel behind the story. The power of a writer is the ability to create a character, a struggle, but after that, it’s no longer me writing the story—it’s my character’s story. Pretty words are nice but what really matters is Whatever Happened to Janie? (Caroline B. Cooney, anyone?) The truth is that being a writer means having the power to be creative, having the ability to create a struggle, but the truth of that kind of power is that it’s not meant to serve me. Just like the elected official serves the community, the teacher serves the students, the boss serves the employees, the writer serves the character.

The medium is human nature.


Rebecca and I seemingly had an idea at the same time. She posted last week that she’ll be writing a more humorous story soon. I messaged her when I saw that and told her that I had also been mulling over doing something funny, but maybe in a way that wasn’t embarrassing.

I picked up Terry Pratchett’s first book of his famous Discworld series (I am the type to read three or four books at the same time) because I’m intrigued by comedy. It’s been really fun writing for the sake of funny because everything is less serious. You can really let go and blow your boundaries for the sake of the unexpected. It’s freeing.

Additionally, I’ll be presenting a short speech titled Bibliomania, on the topic of books. For those of you in the Appleton area the info will be on my Facebook page as well as here in the blog. Bibliomania means book-crazy and that’s me to the core so it simply covers the things I love about books—a fun, informal talk.

Worthy reading:

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula Le Guin

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Caroline B. Cooney, just for nostalgia

(Also, find me on GoodReads!)



Photo by Igor Starkov on Unsplash

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