Writing Remedy: How to Breathe Life Into One-Dimensional Characters

Stack of books
Stack of books

The plot to your story is tight and clever, your setting is realistic and complete, but (uh-oh!) your characters are flat and lifeless. Nothing kills a great story faster than one-dimensional characters. Your writing needs emergency first aid... STAT!

Thankfully, there are a few basic writing techniques you can use to fix your story and breathe some life into your characters.

Add a big dose of your own reality. By using your own life experiences as inspiration, you can give your characters realistic reactions to any situation. If your protagonist is breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, you can draw on your own feelings and response in a similar situation to get the emotions right. It doesn’t have to be an identical event—maybe you were fired from your job, or your favorite pet died—but using how you felt at the time to write your character’s reaction will make him or her more believable.

Break the mold. Your heroine shouldn’t always be heroic. And the tyrannical businessman doesn’t always have to be bossy. For more realistic characters, it’s important to add some out-of-character moments. Maybe your brave protagonist is terribly afraid of the dentist. Perhaps the hard-nosed boss is a pushover for kittens. By giving your characters unexpected personality quirks, you give them dimension and life.

But don’t have your character suddenly act wildly out of character simply because you can’t think of a better way to move the story forward. Even unpredicted actions or thoughts should still be plausible and authentic within the context of your plot.

Include some emotional conflict. Having your characters deal with inner battles makes them more true-to-life and convincing. Readers will empathize with the character’s struggle—whether it’s a twinge of jealousy, a moment of doubt, or a sense of insecurity. After all, haven’t we all been there ourselves?

Let the actions and appearances show depth. You can reflect a character’s mental or physical state through what she does or what he wears. Are her hands shaking uncontrollably as she holds the knife? Is his hair disheveled…his shirt tearstained? The more you use behavior and outer appearance to reinforce your characters’ thoughts and actions, the more real and three-dimensional they will be to your readers.

With living, breathing, three-dimensional characters who have hopes, flaws, and complex reactions, your story will fully engage your readers and keep them emotionally invested in the outcome.