Sunday, September 29, 2013

Shallow Ways to Create "Deep" Characters

...Or Depth a la the Disney Channel

We all know that shallow characters suck, but who has time to develop the multi-layered characters that are the beating heart of your story?  Well, worry no more.  Simply slap on one of these qualities and fool the masses into thinking your one-dimensional stereotype is a deep and thoughtful individual.  Best of all, it doesn't take any of your precious time, effort, or creativity.  


She's reading a book.  That means she's, like, smart, right?

Why It Works

We like smart people.  What better way to convey intelligence than by handing them a book and maybe a pair of glasses.  If they're a scientist, they can have a lab coat, too.

Why It's Shallow

I have nothing against reading (obviously).  But this is lazy.  A person holding a book at the start of story might not actually display any cleverness, while plenty of people might show intelligence without reading all the time.

How to Deepen It

Rather than handing them a generic book, figure out what they like to read.  Fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.  Fantasy, Scifi, Classics, Modern Literature, Children, Comedy, Mystery, Romance.  History, Biography, Psychology, Self-Help, True Crime, Biology, Physics, Religion, Philosophy.  Pick a few and see what it says about them.  For instance, I once had a tough girl who secretly loved to read Wuthering Heights and a trigger-happy boy who was pretty knowledgeable with history.  Bonus points if their choice of reading material affects the plot.


Braces and glasses?  Please.  And did you see her wardrobe?  What an ugly duckling.

Why It Works

Who hasn't felt ugly from time to time?  It's easy to sympathize with characters who are bullied for their looks. No one thinks its fair to suffer social rejection for something they have no control over.

Why It's Shallow

Very few writers have the guts to write hideous characters.  What we get instead is an average-to-beautiful person, with some frizzy hair or bushy eyebrows lopped in.  Other times writers actually try to sell "skinny," "pale," and "tall," like their faults.  Your character's basically a supermodel.  Stop trying to pretend she's ugly.

How to Deepen It

If you aren't willing to commit to an-honest-to-God ugly character, you have a few options.  First and most obvious, you can drop the issue altogether.  There's nothing wrong with have an average-looking character.  If the character must be a social reject, there could be many reasons, from awkwardness to lack of self-esteem to being different in some way.  More risky, you could make the character an ethnic minority.  She needn't suffer from overt racism, just a standard of beauty she can't hope to meet.


Look at him in his leather jacket.  He's so cool.  He makes his own rules and anyone who tries to stop him gets a swift punch to the face.

Why It Works 

A character who refuses to blend in to society is going to stand out.  And anyone who's ever felt stifled by rules, norms, stupid bureaucracy, or unfair authority figures will appreciate the rebel willing to take them on.

Why It's Shallow

Is your character actually rebelling?  Is he fighting some sort of social oppression?  Or is he just projecting a "cool" attitude, dressing in tough clothes, and making witty remarks at the principle.  And let's say, he does do something rebellious.  Does he face any repercussions for his actions?  Or do all authority figures roll over under his magical rebel powers?

How to Deepen It

First, you as the author should know what he's rebelling against.  It could be some vague idea like middle-class American values or some specific authority figure like an oppressive teacher.  Next consider the cost.  The authority will push back.  How does your character deal with it?  Why rebel at all?  Is there some specific moment in his past that made him decide to push against the power?


Save the whales, you male chauvinist pig!  Free speech for all and down with school uniforms!

Why it Works 

Half the time it doesn't.  The idea behind it, though, is to show that your character cares about something bigger than themselves.  They might be annoying, but how can someone who devotes their live to a cause be shallow?

Why It's Shallow

Certain writers fall into the trap of thinking that giving a character a cause is akin to giving them a personality.  And so an environmentalist dresses like a hippie, holds protests on the weekends, and screams at everyone who forgets to recycle.  Likewise, a Raiders fan wears a jersey at all times, tailgates the games on weekends, and screams at everyone who mentions another team winning.  Both are loud and obnoxious and fanatical.  Loving trees instead of footballs does not prevent the character from being a one-dimensional stereotype.

How to Deepen It

Make the rabid environmentalist a Raiders fan.  Seriously, any kind of life outside their cause adds depth.  


Other girls only care about their hair and makeup.  Not me.  I'm going to leave this one-horse town and make something of myself!

Why It Works

Everyone has a dream.  Who among us hasn't wished to be a teacher or a doctor or an actress or an astronaut?  Who can't relate to the desire to become more than what we are now?

Why It's Shallow

Everyone has a dream--even those "other" girls who seem only to care about their hair and make up.  Anyone can want something.  It's not exactly an extraordinary trait.

How to Deepen It

Having a dream is nothing.  Pursuing a dream is everything.  What do they sacrifice for the dream?  How do they deal with obstacles and disappointments?  Are there any moral lines they will or will not cross to obtain their dream?  These things make up the heart of the character and also the heart of the story.


None of these qualities are bad in and of themselves.  The problem is stopping too soon and not thinking about how these qualities relate to the characters.  

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post with an original angle. d:)