Long-Term Undercurrents in Fictional Character Development

As a preface, there are two general layers of character development when it comes to depth.

Depth.

By that I mean, how sober and weighty a character is in their approach to other people, themselves, and the ramifications of their overall impact on living things and social structures around them.

So with depth, there are two layers.

The first layer is the surface description, and that’s dialogue, actions, and individual interactions with other characters or non-sentient objects in a space.

For example, the way a man handles a frying pan tells you an awful lot about him. One person may lift the frying pan carefully, making no sound against the surface of the stove, and adjusting the handle to be at a visually pleasing angle to the rest of the lines nearby, while another might snatch up and clang the pan down without careless abandon, leaving the frying pan only partially on the heat and paying no mind at all to the placement of the handle.

There are infinite ways to pick up and use a frying pan, but if we were to sit down and watch representative samples of the action from hundreds of persons, we would quickly separate our subjects into types or similar pan-handlers, depending on their speed, their care, and the kinetic quality of their accompanying motion.

I brought up the frying pan example because that is a sampling of a surface level indication of character depth.

Now, the surface is dialogue, actions, and individual interactions with other people or non-sentient objects within the world.

There are two parts to character depth, and the first part is surface description.

The second part is deep meaning. Deep meaning comes from contextual patterns of behavior, the linking together of the surface aspects to the overall picture of the character in the world.

This is where characterization becomes interesting, because only with the addition of deep meaning can we evaluate an individual character and decide if we approve of them or not.

Deep meaning allows us to elucidate moral judgments from the data provided by surface description.

Examples

Ronny picked the kitten up by the scruff of its neck and rapidly scooped the tiny body into the folds of his sweater, keeping the baby cat warm and swaddling its trembling body.

“You should have left it alone,” Yolanda said, her eyebrow arched and her mouth twisting with disapproval.

“The little kitty was scared. Look, its fur is wet. I’m taking it home,” Ronny said, shivering with excitement as he felt the frail body throb in his sweater with a violent purr.

Okay, there we have some surface description. If we left this segment as-is, it would be poor writing, because the reader has no deep meaning with which to evaluate the context of Ronny’s behavior or of Yolanda’s judgement.

Let’s look at some examples of deep meaning that, if woven into the surrounding story, would combine with this surface description to give the reader a very powerful sense of character depth and development.

Some Deep Meaning Samples:

  1. Ronny is a serial killer who experiments on homeless animals and Yolanda is an undercover cop working to pin Ronny for murder. OR …
  2. Yolanda just painstakingly and secretly restored the kitten to its mother and Ronny is an eccentric recluse who collects homeless cats. OR …
  3. Ronny’s beloved cat just died, leaving him disconsolate and on the verge of a breakdown, and Yolanda has been trying to get Ronny to agree to get a dog as their new pet. OR …
  4. Yolanda is mildly allergic to cat hair and Ronny passive-aggressively coats himself in cat smell in order to make her sneeze and choke up. OR …
  5. Ronny is a recovering alcoholic who just rescued the kitten from a potential road accident and Yolanda, who supports them both, lost her job yesterday and hasn’t told Ronny yet.

Deep meaning is established over time and within the overall patterns of behavior shown by surface description. Together the two parts create depth in individual character development.

The pitfall to watch out for here is that it’s possible to create a lack of deep meaning and an overabundance of surface description, and also to write surface description in patterns that creates deep meaning you don’t want your characters to show. It’s very possible and somewhat common to write surface description that, contextually, inadvertently reveals deep meaning that you, the author, didn’t mean to leave in there.

The undercurrent of contextual behavior is the foundation for character depth, and surface description is the landscape and decor on top of that foundation. When you’re aware of the foundation you’re creating, you’re much less likely to end up with a wobbly or accidentally shallow character.

And Now, A Sample

More Diana

Diana hiked swiftly through the dark halls of the junior high, listening to the huff of Stuart’s breath behind her. She wanted to leave him behind, but he was taller than she was, and had been irritatingly athletic for the last several years.

Diana preferred the old Stuart, the chubby, awkward one who wore glasses and made silly grimaces when he was angry. That Stuart had been, to her mind, perfectly manageable. Everything had spiraled out of control with the boy’s embrasure of physical discipline, and his descent into more than competent juvenile hygiene had made him impossible to win against.

Stuart was handsome, he smelled good, adults loved him, and his favorite activity was destroying Diana’s life. Now that he’d had muscles for several years, he was fairly practiced at tormenting her in ways that were wildly effective and functionally impossible to bring to anyone else’s attention. Stuart was a sneaky fellow, and Diana pushed open the heavy doors of the junior high and wondered if he was going to continue to behave well in light of the aliens’ looming and threatening existence.

Diana turned and walked backwards, the weighty metal backpack on her shoulders and her nose frosting already in the chilly air.

“So, Stu,” Diana said, watching Stuart press out of the school doors and immediately begin to shiver. He was wearing gym stuff, shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, and Diana wondered if the aliens had taken him in the midst of some irritatingly effective workout session. Stuart hurried to catch up to her, and Diana frowned and walked backwards faster, angling to stay on the icy sidewalk.

“What?” Stuart asked, breaking into a jog and catching up. Diana concealed her irritation and spun around, almost breaking into a run herself. “Dude, slow down! What is it?” Stuart asked, laughing at her and striding easily along at her faster pace.

Diana had meant to be working Stuart up into a rage; she hadn’t expected to start feeling so angry herself, and she slowed down and then stopped, fixing her eyes on the graceful ice swirls over the sidewalk. Stuart paused beside her and waited, and he had so obviously accepted her as a temporary leader to their small party of two that Diana found herself wanting to punch him.

She hadn’t tried to hit Stuart for years. Diana took several calming breaths and reminded herself that the aliens, hopefully, were going to dissect Stuart or something after they were finished watching them.

Stay calm; he’s afraid of the aliens, Diana told herself, and she looked at Stuart, who was watching her expectantly.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, the hunting party is about to get underway.

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