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September 4, 2018

What Does It Mean to Create Layered Characters?

Slice of onion with text: Revealing Layers of Our Characters

In the writing world, we’ve probably heard the advice to create layers in our stories and characters. Sounds good, but what does it mean? Let’s take a look…

What Are Layers and Why Do We Want Them?

The word layers can refer to many different aspects of writing, which doesn’t help our understanding of what they are or why we want them in our stories. *smile*

For example, we might strive to layer in:

  • setting, action, and body language information with our dialogue to avoid “talking head” issues
  • subtextual information to avoid being too “on the nose” or “spoonfeeding” our readers
  • subplots to add complications to the main plot
  • character emotions to broaden their reactions from just the obvious (feeling relief and guilt at the same time, etc.)
  • theme hints to add a sense of a message and purpose to the story
  • conflicting character goals, maybe one a conscious desire and one a subconscious longing that makes it harder for them to make progress
  • internal monologue of characters for insight into their thoughts and motivations
  • character fears, flaws, and false beliefs to add complications for achieving goals and give them something deeper to overcome
  • plot obstacles interfering with characters’ attempts to succeed
  • mood-setting information to create style for our story
  • rhythm and voice techniques to increase readers’ enjoyment of our words
  • etc., etc.

In other words, layering means that we’re weaving in different elements of our story, characters, writing craft, etc. Some writers even start with just one element—such as writing their whole story just as dialogue—and then layer in everything else once they have the shape of the story.

How do we create a layered, three-dimensional character? Click To TweetEvery story needs a mix of elements to avoid storytelling that’s boring, distant, confusing, etc. We know this, but sometimes it’s easier said than done. Or sometimes it’s tricky to find the right balance, as too much of any element can cause problems like slow pacing.

So let’s take a deeper look at one aspect of layering: character layers. How can we make characters feel more three dimensional by adding layers to how we portray them?

What Goes into Creating Layered, 3D Characters?

Several of the examples included above focus on characters rather than plot or writing craft:

  • character emotions
  • character goals
  • internal monologue
  • character fears, flaws, and false beliefs

Several more of the examples can apply to several aspects of our story—including characters:

  • action and body language: can reveal more about our characters
  • subtextual information: can hint at facets of our characters
  • subplots/theme hints: often tie into characters’ internal goals or emotional journeys

If we look at those elements, we might notice how some are external (action, body language, subplots, external goals) and some are internal (emotions, internal goals, internal monologue, fears, flaws, false beliefs).

One way to create a three-dimensional character is by making sure we’re showing both internal and external aspects of our character.

To understand how important it is to show both internal and external aspects of our character, let’s see what happens when that balance is missing…

If We Show Internal Layers without External Aspects…

A character with strong internal layers might have a full internal arc:

  • they’ll recognize their false belief and learn to overcome its influences
  • they’ll reach their true internal goals (feeling loved, appreciated, etc.), even if that’s not what they thought they desired

However, without the external layers, that internal journey won’t mean as much to readers because the overall story will be weak.

…Our Story Will Lack a Strong Structure

A character’s internal layers often trigger their actions and reactions, creating plot points. For example, if a character’s fears don’t affect them externally in some way, their fears are irrelevant.

Instead, a character’s fears (and flaws, false beliefs, goals, emotions, and other internal layers) should affect how they react to plot events. Their reaction then leads to the next plot point.

Without that reaction, the next plot point will be random, lacking a strong cause-and-effect flow within the story. In other words, a character’s internal layers drive their external journey through the story.

…And Our Story Will Suffer from Other Problems

In addition to the major issue with a weak story structure, a failure to tie a character’s internal layers to the external story can also create problems in other ways.

In a story with a strong internal/external balance:

  • Their false beliefs, flaws, and fears add complications to their attempts to reach their external goals—if success were easy, they’d have done it already.
  • Their internal layers create motivationswhy do they want to prove themselves to their boss (or whatever their external goal)? What internal reasons do they have for not giving up?
  • Their fears create the story’s stakes—the consequences of failure scares them.
  • Their internal layers often trigger their body language and actions—nervousness, longings, etc. all can be expressed externally.
  • Their emotions directly influence their reactions—how they think and feel affects how they act and react.

But a story without that balance will lack those traits.

…Which Results in a Weaker Story

We might have read stories with this all-internal-no-external problem before. An author can think they’re creating a well-rounded character because they’ve focused on all sorts of internal layers.

However, if those layers don’t tie into the external story, they’re less meaningful:

  • There’s no plot trigger for what they learn or do, so we might wonder why they didn’t have their epiphany before.
  • We might not trust that they’ve learned their lesson well enough because we haven’t seen their new-found knowledge affect them in any tangible way.
  • The character might seem inconsistent, or their actions might feel “out of character” because their internal life doesn’t match their external life.

Some literary stories or those with a too-convenient plot often fall into this category. In those stories, the plot and external events are barely relevant to the overall story. While successes with this format prove it’s not the end of the world, it’s a sign that our story isn’t as strong as it could be.

On the other hand…

If We Show External Layers without Internal Aspects…

A character with strong external layers might have robust characterization:

  • their dialogue, actions, and body language make them feel like a living and breathing person
  • they have external goals to drive the plot

However, without the internal layers, the character will be superficial, lacking the depth that engages readers.

…Our Story Will Be Superficial

Our story might have a strong narrative drive due to our nail-biting plot, but without a sense of a deeper connection to the main character, the story won’t be as meaningful. Whether readers turn pages will be all about if our plot points are cool and our twists create shock and other emotions in our readers.

In other words…

  • strong internal layering in characters creates emotions in readers through connections: Readers root for the characters.
  • weak internal layering means that any emotions readers feel are all about their reaction to the plot events: Readers root for an outcome.

Readers will turn pages to be surprised by the next plot twist. Or see if their guess for the answer to the mystery is correct. Etc.

…And Our Story Will Suffer from Other Problems

In addition to the major issue of creating a superficial story, a failure to develop strong internal layers can create problems in other ways.

In a story with a strong internal/external balance:

  • Their action and body language meaningfully reveal character—not just act as pointless gestures breaking up dialogue.
  • Their external layers (including their goals) are driven by internal motivations—they have reasons for what they want, so their actions aren’t too-convenient or puppet-like.
  • The subplots often center around their internal goals—they’re trying to solve the mystery, but they also long to reconnect with their father (or whatever the details).

But a story without that balance will lack those traits.

…Which Results in a Weaker Story

We almost definitely have read stories along these all-external-no-internal lines before. Some genres simply don’t focus on characters as much as the plot or they have a shallower point of view, and obviously that format works for those audiences.

However, if our genre or story focuses more on characters and if the external layers don’t tie into the internal story, the story will lack meaning:

  • There’s no sense of internal motivation for what characters do, so readers might be confused about why characters make certain choices.
  • The characters’ actions and choices might lack a sense of cause and effect, as they might be driven more by what the author needs them to do rather than their own internal reasons.
  • The stakes—the consequences of failure—lack a personal connection for the characters, so readers won’t feel as strong of a sense of dread at the outcome.
  • The character might seem inconsistent, or their actions might feel “out of character” because their internal life doesn’t match their external life.

As I said, plenty of genre stories fall into this category because characters just aren’t as important in some genres. In those stories, the character and their emotions might be barely relevant to the overall story, and the plot is what readers come to the story for. This is especially the case for genres with more distant points of view.

While successes with this format prove it’s a perfectly valid option, it’s a sign that our story isn’t as strong as it could be—at least not if we intend our story to be a deeper point of view or to have a strong focus on characters.

Example of Character Layers: Inner vs. Outer

This is a lot of words to dig into what internal layers vs. external layers really means, but let’s take a look at an example to see how this concept of showing both works in practice.

My characters (both hero and heroine) often have a mix of “alpha” and “beta” traits. They know what they want, and they’re not intimidated by the obstacles in their way to get it. They can be stubborn, prickly, and difficult.

In other words, their external behaviors—their actions, body language, etc.—and their external goals give them a drive that provides things to root for, but those aspects can also make them standoff-ish, arrogant, or unlikable to readers.

At the same time, they care deeply about the world and others around them and often have a self-sacrificing streak, counteracting their unlikability and providing a person to root for.

To make that dichotomy believable, I focus on revealing their inner layers:

  • What makes them vulnerable?
  • What are their flaws, fears, and false beliefs?
  • What motivates them?

Those internal thoughts and emotions give readers a way to connect to them, as standoff-ish as their external behaviors might be. Readers have a reason to root for them, hoping they reach their goals. Their internal thoughts also mean that readers understand why they sometimes act in apparently illogical ways—according to their external layers anyway—and that understanding keeps readers immersed in the story’s flow.

People—and Characters—Are Full of Contradictions

We know people in the real world often are a mix of contradictions. We say one thing yet do another. We act against our own best interest. Etc., etc.

Want realistic, three-dimensional characters? Include contradictions... Click To TweetSo it follows that the more contradictions we can include in our characters—without breaking the story or readers’ suspension of disbelief—the more three-dimensional our characters will be. That disclaimer is key, as readers will be taken out of the story if our characters just seem inconsistent or illogical for no reason.

That’s where finding the right balance of internal and external aspects of our characters comes into play. The better we are at balancing the inner vs. outer layers of our characters, the more complex we can make them without worrying about aspects seeming inconsistent when elements don’t line up in simplistic stereotypes.

With a good balance, we can keep readers in the story, and give them unique, three dimensional characters to root for and connect to. *smile*

Do you try to write three-dimensional characters? What techniques do you use? Have you thought about this inner vs. outer layers perspective before? Does the concept of trying to balance the layers make sense? Do you have any questions about this technique?

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Elizabeth Randolph

Excellent post.

Karen
Karen

I write 3D characters, but it is hard! I am still learning. Your point about having external needs and internal needs that might be conflicting is so interesting. Would the following be a good example? External desire – to be in a loving relationship. Internal desire – does not feel worthy of love. So, a character might be in a loving relationship, but pushes away the lover thus killing the relationship because they do not feel they deserve that love.

Sieran Lane

Jami, I realized that my stories might have a similar style to mystery novels, despite not *really* being in the mystery genre. What I mean is, there is an external plot where the characters have some kind of mission, and also a parallel internal plot concerning their emotional and relationship troubles. The mission plot and the emotional/ relationship plot are not always connected, or not obviously connected, anyway. Sometimes, I saw the mission plot as the backdrop for the relationship developments, because as much as I like the external plot, I’m even more interested in the character relationships. (Some other readers have the opposite preference.) Now this post has got me thinking about what motivates my MCs to get involved in these missions. From what I’ve seen in my stories, these motivational drives could be, e.g. a sense of righteous duty to rescue those in peril (especially if they are in more vulnerable social groups, such as children); a desire to get certain rewards in return for helping (even if they just want their romantic partner’s approval and admiration); a feeling of obligation for some reason (e.g. they were hired to do it, or they feel like it was their fault that this problem happened in the first place); a strong love for the person in danger (e.g. I need to save my best friend); a belief that accomplishing this mission will lead the character to something they fervently want, etc. Of course, a character can have more than one…  — Read More »

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Good point that the character can have sub-plots around their internal goals. Some authors have no sub-plots or have sub-plots about secondary characters only. This kind of tale lacks depth. Also if a main character resolves two or more plots at the end, the story feels neater and more woven. In a longer tale, the sub-plots can arise in sequence and be resolved separately as we move through the main plot, helping the character grow to face the challenge posed by the main plot.

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