For example: Suzie has blonde hair and blue eyes. She has a small scar on her chin. She’s tall and skinny. Suzie works as a paralegal at a law firm. One day she hopes to go to law school and become an attorney. She can’t have children. She sleeps with the light on.
Those little factoids should be sprinkled throughout your introduction to Suzie, but shouldn’t be the main focus of the story in the beginning. Use those supporting tidbits while driving the action.
The second layer should begin to enlighten the reader about what makes Suzie tick. Where did she get the scar on her chin? Why does she want to be an attorney? Why can’t she have children? And why does she sleep with the light on?
So, consider this: Suzie was assaulted when she was a teenager, thus the scar on her chin. She’s wanted to be an attorney since that horrible incident, which left her unable to have children. At this point, the reader assumes Suzie leaves the light on because she is afraid of the dark based on what happened to her. So, instead of driving that point home, let the reader go ahead and assume this for now.
More often than not, that is where a lot of books stop offering layers, which leaves us with a two-dimensional character. But let’s take the reader deeper into Suzie’s psyche in an effort to keep our reader totally vested, caring about Suzie and her outcome. Although, we are still feeding this information slowly.
Third dimension: Suzie doesn’t want to be an attorney in an effort to see justice prevailed. Instead, she is doing it to prove to her father that she can—a man who said she would never amount to anything and who said that she’d enticed the person who raped her. But Suzie helps her father financially just the same. This hints that Suzie came from a bad home life growing up, without force-feeding the information. It also tells the reader that no matter how awful her father might be, Suzie still wants him to be proud of her and she loves him, as shown by her financial support. And Suzie doesn’t sleep with the light on because she is afraid of the dark. She sleeps with the light on because she has a rare neurological condition that requires her to leave the light on.
And throughout the story, you can keep adding layers. Maybe Suzie’s father is so difficult because Suzie’s mother left them both when Suzie was a small child. Does Suzie look just like her mother? Is that why her father resents Suzie or has trouble having a relationship with her? Does Suzie long for a child or never really wanted to be a mother? What is it about Suzie that endears her to the reader? Does she love animals? Maybe so much so that she is constantly bringing home strays?
Then do the same thing for your male character if you’re writing a romance. But ‘Sam’ could be a janitor at the local school who is taking night classes. He has a great family, so he can’t understand why Suzie puts up with her father’s verbal abuse. Has Sam always wanted a houseful of children? Is he allergic to most animals? Take all that conflict, structure an interesting plot, and then let these two people see the essence in each other—the things that no one else sees—and challenge the reader to wonder how these two people will ever end up together.
Even if your story is not a romance, writing multi-layered characters facing insurmountable conflict keeps our readers interested past just the black and white mold of a person without depth.
This process was particularly important for my latest release—The Promise. How many women do you know who would travel to Pakistan, despite warnings from family, friends, and our U.S. State Department? I needed strong motivations for Mallory so that the reader found her actions plausible and wanted to be on the journey with her, rooting for her to achieve her goals. The Promise is inspired by actual events, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, so it was doubly important for the reader to understand what drove Mallory to such lengths.
People are complicated. Our characters should be too. Going the extra mile in a novel will keep your reader turning the pages. We want our readers to live the story, not to just be a spectator. Multi-layered characters are a way to make this happen.
Wiseman can be found at Fans of Beth Wiseman on Facebook where she interacts with readers. Learn more about the author and her books at bethwiseman.com and on Twitter (@bethwiseman).
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