Hi Camy - I'm working on a substantive edit and I'm looking for ways to deepen a character, give her more dimension. What are some ways to bring out more of a character's strengths and weaknesses, give the reader more of a reason to root for her?
Camy here: You’re actually talking about two slightly different things—character richness and character sympathy.
A three-dimensional character with flaws and strengths actually doesn’t just jump out of a writer’s head. Typically, authors spend a great deal of time embellishing and digging deeper into a character, whether before the book is written or as they’re editing.
Three-dimensional characterization is a deliberate, concentrated effort.
One of the best books I’ve found for doing this is Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins, chapters 1 and 2. She uses dramatic techniques to enable writers to create a richer character, just the way a good actor will create a richer character to act out.
Basically, you want to know not just character backstory, but how that backstory has shaped the character’s morals and viewpoint on life. And not just the viewpoint he’ll tell someone else—but the deeper, inner viewpoint he himself might not even realize he has, but which influences every decision he makes.
Once you start with this “inner value,” as Brandilyn describes it, then that inner value impacts various other aspects of the character’s life, and, more importantly, the decisions the character makes in your story.
Unfortunately, this might require a bit of rewrite if you discover an inner value that dictates a different decision than the one the character made in your story. But if that original decision didn’t seem quite right to you as you wrote it, maybe it’s because it clashed with your character’s inner value, and so you really do need to change it—and possibly change your storyline a bit.
One thing I’ve really taken to heart since being contracted is that the opening page (yes, that’s singular—page one of your story) has to show something that makes the reader sympathize or at least empathize with the viewpoint character.
I know that seems like a tall order, but my editors have asked this of me time and again, and I see this often in commercial genre fiction (but it doesn’t necessarily apply to literary fiction).
So ... how to make the character sympathetic in one page?
My secret weapon is the book Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias, chapter 5. He has a quick and dirty list of various things that typically create reader sympathy.
The list is actually interesting to me as a psychology major, because the things all tend to resonate psychologically with the majority of people (naturally, there will always be exceptions). That’s probably why they work most of the time, and why you typically see these techniques in movies.
So, there’s my two-fold answer to your question, which might require this two-fold revision process for your manuscript.
If you have any other questions for my Q&A series, just leave a comment and I'll be sure to get to it!