So my critique partner (and all time best internet friend) Cassie Swindon got a few beta comments on her latest draft saying a character lacked depth. This is an example of fantastic advice from a beta reader because it helps the author pinpoint where a little more attention may be needed in the draft.
So we were doing a little brainstorming how to add a bit more oomph to her character, when she happened to Google it… just to see what comes up. And let me tell you, the results got me seeing red.
Omg, okay Anna. Breathe.
After my initial rage reaction, I remembered to be thorough. Don’t just go flying off the handle based on some random out-of-context thing. So I opened up the article Google was referencing from ScreenCraft so I could get the full picture. Annnnddd….. I just got angrier.
Go ahead. Read the full thing. I’ll wait. And then you come back here and listen to me rant about it.
The Damning Evidence
Okay, all done reading? Great! Let’s dig in.
For anyone who didn’t bother reading the article, it’s five quick tips for adding depth to your characters. The first one I can get on board with:
1. Give your characters a personality flaw.
Yes. Great. That is sound advice. To feel real, your characters can’t be perfect. This is common advice heard in every corner of the writing world. So far so good. Let’s keep going.
2. Give your characters an addiction.
Okay… hold up. What? That doesn’t sound very politically correct. Let’s read on…
“Addiction is indeed a flaw, but there’s much more at stake…”
Wow. The very first line. What the heck? First of all, addiction isn’t a flaw. It’s an illness. But I suppose you could kind of make the argument (if you really wanted to) that an addiction could be considered a literary character flaw. And I can tell you that an addiction isn’t some tool to add stakes to your story.
Even so, this is kind of toeing the line of “wtf.” ScreenCraft has begun digging their hole now. Let’s keep going. The next two kind of go together.
3. Give your character a physical disability.
4. Give your character a mental disability.
What the fuck?? I mean, the addiction one was bad enough, but disabilities???? Are you serious?
The example they use for mental disability is from As Good As It Gets, one of my longtime favorite movies. The main character is an obsessive-compulsive and is a complete jackass. The two conditions are entirely unrelated. This is the golden line from the article in question:
“A lesser script would have had him just be a shut-in asshole that treats everyone like dirt.”
What in the name of all is holy makes anyone think that Melvin’s mental disorder is what makes this a good script? Or that having this specific disorder excuses his bad behavior? Obsessive compulsives are — you guessed it — obsessive compulsives. They’re not inertially assholes. But we’re talking about story telling here, so let’s get back to the point.
The beauty in this movie isn’t that he decides to resume taking his meds. It’s in WHY he decides to resume taking his meds and the lessons he learns in dealing with the other characters. It’s in Carol’s refusal to just take his money and in Simon’s determination. The magic is in seeing the way Carol treats Simon the way he deserves to be treated – something Melvin never bothered to do.
Man I need to go rewatch this movie.
Melvin is chock full of depth, and not a single drop of it has anything to do with his mental disorder.
I could go on and on about this, but let’s keep the rage concise here.
5. Give your character a secret.
This one isn’t offensive, but it is straight up stupid. Here’s the line they use:
“When you give a character a secret that they are trying to keep away from those around them, the audience is pulled deeper into the depths of the character. They want and need to know more.”
What does that have to do with depth? How does needing to know more translate into character depth? It doesn’t! The two are entirely unrelated.
A secret is plot. It has nothing to do with characterization.
This is Not Okay.
Completely disregarding the fact that none of these things will actually create character depth, how dare ScreenCraft use disabilities and addictions as tools for a quick and dirty character makeover? These things aren’t jokes. They’re not boxes to tick on a character sheet. They’re not quirks to make a character more interesting. They require thoughtfulness, deliberation, and compassion to write well. And I would go so far as to say some level of experience with addiction or disabilities would be a huge step in the right direction (even if it’s second hand experience, such as a loved one, doctor, or therapist who deals with such people).
It is NOT offensive to have an addicted or disabled character. It is ABSOLUTELY offensive to use those things as a bandaid for shallow characters.
What is Depth?
After all this rant, I probably should talk a little about what character depth actually is. A character has depth when they’re more than just a stereotype or two dimensional. They are a little complicated, have complex desires, fears, and emotions. They have a unique point of view and a distinct way of looking at the world.
Character depth is displayed in the choices they make (NOT in how sympathetic a physical disability might make them). As always, characterization always comes back down to the choices they make, why they make them, and how those choices push the plot forward – also known as agency.
We’ll take my favorite male lead as an example:
Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy is a pompous ass. The first impression everyone gets of him is that he thinks himself too good for anybody, refuses to talk or dance, and is straight up unlikeable. This is what Elizabeth Bennet thinks of him for the entire first half of the book. It makes her too ready to listen and believe Mr. Wickham’s stories painting Darcy in a bad light. And then when Darcy proposes to her… Oh man. The way he does it is just atrocious. He talks about all the things wrong about her and why that makes her a bad match, but he loves her anyway.
And his arrogance…
As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but from his countenance expressed real security.Pride and Prejudice Chapter 34
So there’s another dimension to his characterization. He just assumes she will say yes and is genuinely shocked when she later refuses him.
Then he writes a letter explaining all the misunderstandings she had about him, and Elizabeth (and the reader) begins to see another side of Darcy’s character.
Not proud, but shy and awkward. He was not malicious in separating Bingley and Jane, but genuine concern for his friend. Not hatefulness and pettiness in dealing with Wickham, but genuine and rightful anger about wrongs committed against his family.
Through the rest of the book, Darcy strives to improve himself (based on the truths Elizabeth spat at him when he proposed). This shows determination and a good heart. He has a character arc in which he stops encouraging Ms. Bingley’s spitefulness and even begins shutting it down.
And when his arch rival, Mr. Wickham, risks hurting Elizabeth’s family, he puts aside all personal feelings and pays him off. Gallantry.
We aren’t told these things. They are shown to us in his actions, his choice of words, in his character arc all the way through.
But I mean, sure. Get him addicted to opiates and really make him shine, right? /s