In order to give your character depth, to take them from a two-dimensional paper cut-out to a three-dimensional literary being is conflict… No, it’s not… Yes, it is! Conflict is that pulling and tugging, that to-ing and fro-ing, that back and forward motion that gives the story tension, makes the reader unable to stop turning pages, and makes your characters come right off the page.
Conflict exists in two ways. Internally – within the character’s mind. And externally – in your big, bad fictional world. You need to incorporate both these forces in order to have as many facets as possible.
So, how to incorporate these conflicts? Easy.
1. Conflicting goals.
So your character has a dream he is striving toward? Or a need he has to fulfil? Or a desire he longs to achieve? Great. Awesome. Super. But if you leave it at this… why will the reader care if he gets there or not? Simple: take this dream or need or desire, and make your character secretly also want the exact opposite! This will pull him in two fascinating directions.
For example, in my novel, Dove, set in 1970 USA, my protagonist, Japhy has just been drafted for the war in Vietnam. Obviously, he does not want to join the army, or kill, or be killed. So, along with his girlfriend, Ray (who has been forced to give up her dreams of college), Japhy heads to Canada. This is his goal: to avoid the draft. By itself, this may be enough to get reader’s interest, but probably not enough to sustain that interest for hundreds of pages. Which is why Japhy also secretly hopes that his journey will fail, and the reasons for this twisted hope are revealed slowly throughout the story. Now, we have an internal battle being waged, and the reader will keep those pages flapping in order to find out what will happen.
2. Conflicting plot.
The second way to create tension in your story, is the plot. Your character has a goal and the world he or she is living in seems intent on making sure that goal does not come to fruition. There is a secondary character who disagrees with your protagonist, verbally or perhaps physically.
At the beginning of Dove, Japhy and Ray encounter a car full of frat boys who are enjoying their last days of freedom before enlisting in the army. Ray gets into a heated argument about her anti-war beliefs, and the frat boys become violent toward her, while Japhy tries, but fails, to protect her.
The slime ball beside us slides his hand along Ray’s thigh again.
I stare at his hand. At his fingers on Ray’s leg. And I can’t move. I can’t speak. I can’t breathe.
Do something! I scream at myself. But I just continue to stare and blink and stare.
‘Is it true you hippie chicks don’t wear bras?’ And then those dirty fingers are blurring up and under Ray’s shirt. Touching her smooth, soft skin in a place where nobody else but I have touched.
She slaps him in the face and he grabs her wrist.
The crisp clap of skin on skin snaps me into action. ‘Take your hands off her!’ I push against his brick-wall chest as hard as I can.
Nothing happens. I can’t budge him. He just smiles at me.
And then I fall backwards. Thick forearms rope around my middle and pull me out into the bright sunshine. My sneakers leave twin grooves in the dirt as I kick and twist. The last I see of Ray is a green flash of her eyes – their whites bright in the darkness – as that disgusting imbecile shadows over her to pull the door closed, and she is trapped in there with his hungry smile, and filthy hands.
‘Ray!’ I cry out her name to let the Gods, or the universe, or karma know that she needs help.
Help that I cannot provide.
Although Japhy just wants to protect his girlfriend the way a boyfriend should, he is physically incapable of standing up to these three bullies. In the wake of this attack, Japhy is left feeling useless, and weak, and unworthy. And it also gives him a reason to want to change, which in turn gives a whole new depth to his character. Because if a character does not evolve throughout his or journey, then what was the point in taking it in the first place?
Please feel free to comment on my tips, or to post examples of your own descriptions – I would love to meet your three-dimensional, leaping-off-the-page, characters!