You should know as much about your characters as they would know about themselves. Oh, sure, you don’t need that level of depth for a short story (although it’d help, if you’re really struggling), but for anything longer than 10,000 words you’d better have a really good idea of who they are, what events shaped them, how their past informs their outlook on life, and why they want whatever it is they’re after.
Two-dimensional characters often come about from an outline such as this:
David was born in 1965. He discovered he was a wizard at the age of 13, and since then has been studying really hard. He is now a really powerful wizard. He lives in San Francisco.
What? Is that it? David’s whole life revolves around him being a wizard? Has he no family, friends, rivals, enemies, pets, favourite foods, lovers, overdue books at the library, or any other influence which could turn him from a dull set of facts into a living, breathing person?
Here’s the thing. You might be writing about a powerful wizard living in San Francisco, but he’s also a human being. Well, he is for the purposes of this example. Here’s a shortish checklist of things a human being generally knows about himself:
Birthdate of himself, his parents, his siblings, long-term partners and friends.
The schools he attended.
What pets he or his friends / family had.
How popular he was at school, and whether or not he’s still in touch with school friends.
His employment history.
When and where he met his best friends and / or lovers.
Their names (usually, although it speaks volumes about a character who can’t list his lovers).
What he likes and dislikes (from food and drink, through to holiday locations, political viewpoints, and “certain kinds of people”).
Date of death of anyone important (a parent, a sibling, a best friend).
And that’s just your basic starting point for a human being. If your character is from another race, he’ll know just as much about himself, just with facts pertinent to his race’s culture – he may not know what “school” is, but his race might follow a rigid path of indentured servitude or military service, about which he’d know just as much as a human does about their school days.
And I’ll step in now, Mr. Clever Clogs: If your character is an amnesiac, you still need to know these things.
Then you layer in what makes your character stand out from the crowd. What makes him the hero, the antagonist, the ally, or the Tin Dog? What makes him get his arse off the sofa / rock / grassy knoll and get involved in a story? All this should come from the world you’ve built to set your story in (you did do that bit, right?): If your world is contemporary London with Vampires, did a Vampire kill his sister? If your world is a distant planet with spleen-sucking aliens, did he witness a spleen being sucked and get so terrified that he’s acting purely in self-defence? Has he been living a dual life, or has this taken over his life? Is he in contact with his world, or has he been removed (or removed himself) from it?
Since stepping off the path of dull, normal life, who has he met? Has anyone taught him what he now knows? Has he teamed up with others who seek the same goals? Is he still with them? If not, why not? Has his new life utterly changed his personality? Was he an easy-going guy before dog-faced beetles chewed his father’s head off? Have new-found powers made him overconfident, or does the new playing field scare him to death?
I mentioned earlier that your characters are after something. This is vital. Without desire, they won’t move forward.
All your characters must want something.
All your characters must need something.
What they want and what they need are two different things.
So let’s look at David the San Francisco wizard. Let’s say we now know what school he attended, what happened to his parents, who mentored him in magic, and all those other great facts. Instead of a couple of lines we now have two or three pages of background (or more – don’t be shy now). With all these facts you’ll have a better idea of the kind of guy he is – trust me, you will. How he’s dealt with enemies in the past will inform how he deals with them in your story. Does he hurl fireballs, or does he retreat to the library and research his foe? Is he too prone to losing his temper, or is he such a perfectionist that enemies run unchecked while his nose is in a book?
What does he want?
Why does he do what he does? Does he want to become all-powerful, or does he want revenge? Does he want to protect those unable to defend themselves, or does he want to rule the world? Does he seek to cure his wife from a Lich’s curse, or does he want to become a Lich himself? If he doesn’t want something, he won’t strive for it, much as if you don’t want money you won’t bother turning up to work every day.
What does he need?
Oh yeah. Now we’re down to the guts of it. What is it that your character needs, that he’s unaware of? What would truly solve his problems? He may want revenge, but maybe what he needs is closure, and revenge won’t give it to him. Maybe he wants to find that cure, but what he needs is to recognise and accept that even his power can’t achieve everything. Perhaps he wants to protect the defenceless, but he needs someone to make him feel protected.
What he wants and what he needs should conflict one-another. And the moment you give him either, the story is over, unless you can replace one want or need with another want or need. Remember that if you want to draw your story out into a series.
Nobody wants to read about a character who’s got nothing to do.