Let’s get one thing straight: Unless it’s a biography on a saint,
readers don’t want angelic characters. Readers want characters with
demons, with messy, haunted pasts that keep them from getting the
present quite right. Readers want characters they can relate to, maybe
even feel superior to at times. Most of all, they want characters that
are interesting, that act unpredictably, that make mistakes.
And by tapping into your own not-so-perfect past, you can give readers
exactly what they want—and, of course, write a great story in the
When I develop characters with clients or in my own work, I use a
process based on figuring out those characters’ fears and desires. (You
can read more about this process by clicking on one of the related
posts, below.) If characters seem shallow or one-dimensional, it’s
usually because I don’t know enough about those fears and desires, or
haven’t fully explored situations where they’ve come to play. If you
hit a similar stumbling block, try asking some questions of yourself—and writing them out narratively—before you do the same for your characters:
- What is my saddest memory?
- What is a situation in which I failed somebody I loved? How about failed a stranger?
- What is the most hateful thing I’ve ever done?
- When was the last time I was ecstatically happy?
- What was my first time drinking alcohol/having sex/driving a car/doing drugs/etc. like?
- What is the most unexpected, uncharacteristic thing I’ve ever done? Why did I do it? What came of that action?
- If I could go back to a pivotal moment in my life and relive it, what would it be? What would I do differently or the same?
- What’s one thing I would never tell my spouse/best friend/mother/father/sibling?
- Have I ever been desperately scared? What of? What came of the situation?
- What is my biggest regret?
By tapping into less frequented, highly emotional areas of your
memory, you’ll be accessing new ways to develop your characters—new
situations to put them in, new desires and fears to explore, new
aspects of their personalities to reveal. So go ahead. The dirtier your
past, the better!