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Depth of Character

Photobucket [1]What makes a person deeply fascinating?  Knowledge?  Mystery?  Complexity?  Command?  Allure?  Everyone’s answer is likely different, but I suspect there’s one quality that universally makes others absorbing to us: passionate engagement in life.

Awake, aware, discerning, curious, compassionate, gripped, immersed…we could define this quality in any number of ways.  We can also understand what it is not: aloof, cold, hard, apathetic, cynical, unfeeling, detached.

It’s funny, considering how often protagonists in manuscripts are exactly that.  How are we supposed engage—and stay engaged for hundred of pages–with characters who are dead inside?

That is not to say that our heroes and heroines shouldn’t ever feel down, discouraged or even defeated.  That’s natural and can be dramatic.  The measure of engagement is not emotions, positive or negative, but rather caring.

Caring is everything from anger to ennui.  Ennui? Sure.  Being bored is an inverse measure of engagement.  Are you infuriated by the monotony of Phillip Glass’s compositions?  There you go.

So how can we ensure that our characters are as passionately engaged on the page as they are in our minds?  The easiest way to excavate their passions is to develop—and put on display—their opinions.

How does your protagonist feel about grunge boots?  Puccini?  Porcini mushrooms?  Hegel’s idea of a civil society?  The future of aviation?  Texting while walking?  It’s interesting to learn such opinions, isn’t it?

That’s my point.  Characters who are engaged—who care about things, small and big—in turn engage us.  Let’s dig further.

How does your protagonist like least about her best friend?  What’s the best thing about the problem at hand?  Who’s his secret enemy, and why?  Where’s the best place to think things over?  When does the breaking point come and how close is it right now?  Why is love so difficult?

More: What score does your protagonist award himself at this moment?  What does she think are her chances of success?  What’s his basic take on authority figures?  Who, in her opinion, needs help more than anyone else?

Now take any one of those opinions and find a spot to reverse it.  Also pick three of those opinions and express them in a way that’s wildly over the top.  Can you see places in your manuscript for any of the above?

Is your main character getting more interesting?  That’s good.  I suspect he or she will be more interesting to your readers, too.

You might worry that these opinions are irrelevant to your story.  I disagree.  They are what will make your protagonist absorbing.  They are, in a practical sense, what we call depth of character.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s midiman [2]

About Donald Maass [3]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [4]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [5], The Fire in Fiction [6], Writing the Breakout Novel [7]and The Career Novelist [8].