Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.
5 Tips for Crafting Well-Rounded Characters
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single novel in possession of a good storyline must be in want of a well-rounded character. An enticing plot will only get you so far without interesting characters to move it along! Really, it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other: a plot is made all the more gripping when the reader is invested in the characters.
So how do authors craft well-rounded characters who are multi-dimensional and realistic? To break it down, I’ve outlined five go-to tips for crafting characters that readers will either love or hate, but could never call flat.
What makes a round character “round”?
Round characters, ironically, come in all shapes and sizes. To work out what makes a character round, it can be helpful to consider the opposite — flat characters — as a point of contrast. Flat characters are one-dimensional, with few complex emotions, thoughts, or motivations. Their personalities are either completely nondescript or very strong but without nuance.
Sometimes a character will start off flat and go through changes that round them out as the story progresses. Having a character arc is thus one great way of achieving the complexity that defines round characters. That said, characters don’t have to go through changes to be round. Other ways of creating depth include:
● Making them as realistic and authentic as possible;
● Having them exhibit morally grey qualities;
● Spurring them to act in surprising ways; or,
● Trying to make them relatable and/or memorable.
A word of warning: characters who seem round may in fact suffer from something I like to call “stereotypical multi-dimensionality.” That’s to say, they may be flawed and complex, but in exactly the same way as many other characters in many other novels. (Think the leather-clad bad-boy with a soft heart that you’ll find in many YA novels, and similar character tropes.)
To avoid pitfalls like this while navigating the landscape of character crafting, I use the following tips and tricks.
1. Create the outer layer
Just because your aim is to create a complex, well-rounded character, that doesn’t mean you should skip past the basics. The details may not make it into your story, but creating each character’s outer layer is a useful first step in the process. Start by making a list of:
● Basic demographic information like age, name, nationality, occupation, income, place of birth, and current location.
● Physical characteristics like eye color, hair color, build, and gait.
● Information on speech and body language, like accent, whether they are well-spoken or not, if they have a catchphrase or tend to use hand gestures, etc.
You might also want to consider whether they have something that distinguishes them from other people, like a beauty spot or a tattoo, as well as the general impression they give to others. Are they put-together or messy? This is a non-exhaustive list so let your imagination run wild!
2. Flesh the character out
Of course, to craft a round character, you’ll have to go beyond the superficial details. Writing well-rounded characters requires a lot of preparation, but laying down the groundwork will eventually help you write faster.
So once those have been established, it’s time to look a bit closer at their immediate context. Which external factors have shaped them into the person that they are, and what influences them in their daily life? Who and what do they interact with, react to, and coexist with?
To develop these additional layers of your character, you’ll want to ask questions about:
● Your character’s past:
○ Did they have a happy childhood?
○ Do they have any major regrets?
○ A criminal record?
○ What major life events have shaped them?
● Your character’s family situation:
○ What do their parents do?
○ Do they have siblings?
○ Are they close?
● Any other relationships:
○ Do they have a partner or love interest?
○ What are their friends like?
○ Do they have any enemies?
○ How does your character interact with strangers?
○ How are they perceived?
○ What is their role in group situations?
3. Give them a core
In order to create the true depth that every well-rounded character needs, you must explore what internal factors make them tick. This is the most important part of any well-rounded character. Whether you’re publishing a children's book or literary fiction, you need to know what motivates your character, what scares them, and — most importantly — how these things will manifest themselves in the plot.
To get a good handle on what goes on inside their head, you might want to ask:
● What kind of personality does my character have?
● What are my character’s main goals?
● What is their biggest fear?
● Are these factors more innate or shaped by experience?
● Which of these elements is most pertinent to my plot?
Asking yourself questions like these will help you figure out how they’re likely to react in the situations you put them in, so they never act out of character. To that end, it also helps to map out your character’s past hurts and joys, memories and regrets, as well as future goals, dreams, and aspirations — again, even if the majority of these details don’t end up in your final draft, they all contribute to a more well-rounded character.
4. Do some creative writing exercises
Once you have an outline of your character, it can help to turn to some creative writing exercises to nail down the details.
Staging an interview with your character, like Hayley did with her protagonist Natalie, can be an excellent exercise. To make sure you don’t just ask the questions you know you can answer, use a list like Arthur Aron’s Intimacy Test or pick and choose from Vault’s 101 Interview Questions.
Putting yourself in your character’s shoes will help you iron out any doubts you might have, and fill in any gaps or inconsistencies you might have missed. As a bonus, you can use this as promotional material later!
Another exercise you can try is to have your character write a letter to their younger self, to get a sense of both their voice and their past. This will test how well you know their backstory and establish your character’s overall growth trajectory.
5. Write your character in action
The last step is to actually write your character into scenes. This might feel like tired advice to veteran writers, but I always think it bears repeating:
Knowing everything you do about your character, don’t be tempted to over-explain, over-describe, or info-dump. Instead, trust your reader and let the things you’ve established about your character guide their behavior, their dialogue, and their reactions. Start with what stands out about them, but quickly move on to what really matters. Use their POV to let readers into their mind and allow your character’s outer layer, inner layers, and core shine through.
In the end, crafting well-rounded characters is all about giving them the kinds of features that a real-life person would have. So use your own life to find inspiration and let strengths mix with weaknesses. You’ve got this!