One problem that many a novice writer stumbles into when taking their first forays into novel writing is characters that are too one-sided. This is especially bad for main characters, who get a lot of the spotlight. You want to create an immersive world that takes the reader out of this one, and if a character is always depressed and unmotivated, it can feel unrealistic. So in this post, I’ll go over not only how to avoid making a character feel flat, but also in what circumstances it may be actually benefit a story.
Main characters. Arguably the single most complex things in your story, depending on what you’re writing, there’s a lot that goes into giving a character depth. I think that one major pitfall new writers fall for is focusing on their ‘fatal flaw’. They throw a bunch of cool and heroic personality on their traits, and then they stick on one bad one: arrogant, scared, lazy, etc.
The problem with this is that writers often use flaw as the first go-to for establishing conflict, and suddenly you have an entire major plot conflict built around the fact that your protagonist was too stubborn to apologize and admit fault, creating an antagonist and a lot of unnecessary events happen that seem unrealistically blown out of proportion simply because you needed a conflict trigger.
The other challenge is that readers often want to relate to their main characters. If you’re only showing us how arrogant and powerful they are, it’s hard to identify with that, because (practically) nobody is confident all the time. But you don’t want somebody that is constantly depressed over the loss of the loved one that died fifteen years ago because that isn’t very relatable, either.
Protagonists often have character arcs where they overcome their flaw, of course. Bilbo the grumpy hobbit realizes he loves adventure, Dr. Frankenstein comes to terms with the repercussions of his hubris, and Aang finally accepts responsibility and destiny over the course of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Many protagonists need arcs where they tackle and conquer their shortcoming. The trouble lies in painting the entire plot structure and the character around this flaw.
Aang is many things, not just ‘carefree and avoidant’. Rather, much of his character is shaped around it. He loves to have fun, and he’s very silly. Perhaps he wants to hang on to his childhood as much as possible. He also grows very attached to his friends, and maybe he’s scared of endangering them because of his destiny. The difference is that we aren’t seeing ‘carefree’ the whole time, we’re shown many aspects of his character.
So let’s say your character is too one-dimensional. How do you fix this? Well, ask yourself what other sides this character my have, even if they don’t show other people. You don’t want anyone on stage to seem like a cardboard cutout unless they’re part of the background, and main characters never are. If your protagonist struggles with depression, ask yourself what makes them happy. What used to make them happy, and why? If happiness isn’t an emotion you want this character to show the reader, what else could be used? Maybe they express their sadness as anger to other characters, so while everybody thinks that Protag has anger issues, the reader really knows they’re just depressed, a side they show the reader only when alone.
To sum it all up, I’ve found the easiest way to give characters depth is to ask them what circumstances provide what emotion to that character. If I can’t think of anything that would make the character happy, I invent something out of the blue. Maybe it’s coloring books. Why? I don’t know, but I can explore the reasoning behind it in the next chapter or a rewrite. It doesn’t have to make sense immediately. Maybe your character will tell you why coloring books are so special to them on their own, and if they do, let them. Sometimes your characters will know more about themselves than you do.
So, all that said, when are one-dimensional characters okay? Well, simply put, anyone who doesn’t get a spotlight can get away with being one-dimensional. If the camera doesn’t focus on them too often, them only expressing one emotion is perfectly fine. In fact, if a character isn’t important enough to give the reader more than their name, I don’t even consider them characters. People at a party are furniture, part of the scenery, not meant to push any part of the story one way or another. Cardboard cutouts are fine here. As the story progresses, fleshing out their character can work, but be careful with this, the more complex a character seems, the more important they may seem to the reader. Don’t give depth to characters that don’t need it.
As a side note, flat main characters can work, but it requires a lot of work, and I won’t get into it here. Suffice to say, don’t try it unless you’re deliberately putting the spotlight on a flat character.