July 12, 2018

Layer by Layer

By Chris Pepple, Writer-At-Large for Southern Writers Magazine

When I speak to writing groups, our conversations often turn to character development. How do we let our readers get to know our characters? If you are writing a short story, your readers need to know the intimate details of your characters fairly quickly, so they can love them (or dislike the antagonists) before the ending. You must introduce the characters through conversations and actions early in the story, so your readers can relate to them.

If you are writing a novel, however, you can add depth to your characters by letting the readers get to know them in stages. You can reveal their personalities layer by layer. I have an exercise I use in my seminars that reminds us that what we first see in a person is not always indicative of what the person is actually feeling or thinking. For example, a person suffering from depression often appears very happy at first glance. An introvert may be labeled as shy even though they are quite confident around others and enjoy group social settings. They may just need some quite time alone to recharge later.  

For this exercise, draw a square in the center of a blank piece of paper (make the square large enough to write in). Draw a larger square around that one, leaving room to write between the two squares. Draw another square around that one, still leaving room to write inside the lines. In the first inside square, write a description that reveals the innermost traits of the character you are developing at the moment. Write things that only the character knows about herself: hidden fears, deep worries, hidden depression or social anxiety, secret crushes, easily tired, secretly hates the family’s famous dessert recipe, insomnia.

Just outside of that box and inside the lines of the second one, write what close friends and family members would think about that character: loyal, responsible, easily tired, workaholic, messy, funny, charming, etc. Use the lines between the second and third box to write what co-workers and acquaintances see when they run into the character in a social setting. 

Would they see the character as a nice dresser, dependable, always late, willing to speak up in a meeting, someone they can ask advice about a project? Around the outside of the last box, write the physical description of the person that everyone in public can see. Describe the hair color, eye color, height, and build of the character. Does that character use a cane or a wheelchair?

These boxes remind you of the many layers of your character. When you are writing your novel, reveal your characters to your readers in stages the way we get to know people in our lives. Let readers get to know your characters layer by layer as the plot develops. 

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