Economic times aren’t bad enough, now we owe our characters a debt? Yes, but we don’t owe them money. We owe them our time and our effort to make them real. I can hear someone yell “Time is money.” I see it more as an investment. We invest in our characters to make them dimensional so our readers fall in love with our story. That pays off in compound interest. Okay, that exhausts my financial vocabulary. To be blunt, writers have to make their characters come alive. That doesn’t happen by filling out character charts on what’s in their closet or hanging on their walls. That only comes when you ask yourself what would this person kill or die for? What matters to your character? What type of person are they that they want or need this thing that matters more than life or death to them? That takes some thought. You’re searching for their soul—what makes them tick—and that doesn’t come from making snap decisions about their likes and dislikes. You must move beyond the superficial if you want to create outstanding characters.
Easily said, but how do you go about doing it? First off, don’t worry about their physical characteristics. You don’t need to go into detail about the color of their hair and eyes, body build, clothes they’re wearing, etc., unless their physical appearance is part of your plot. Josie shops at Goodwill. She’s into retro and doesn’t care what the cool girls at school say. Her choice of clothes, then, is a statement about her personality. Generally, though, physical details are quickly forgotten by the reader (usually by the next page) so don’t obsess about them.
Secondly, if you give your character a personality trait then it better be necessary to the story and not just an arbitrary tag. If your character is narcissistic, then he better see the world only in relation to himself. He should try to catch glimpses of himself in every reflective surface. It should come out in his dialogue and how he responds to other characters. All of this may make him seem superficial. And he is, unless you get to the reason for why he’s this way. People aren’t born being a narcissist. Something makes them that way. If he’s your main character then the inciting incident is what rips his rose colored glasses off and he finally sees himself as the world sees him. How does he cope with that? That’s how you add depth.
Thirdly, don’t go for the obvious. You have a small town sheriff as one of your characters. Don’t make him a redneck with a beer belly. Make the sheriff a single mom, very smart, and very capable. A worthy opponent for your main character.
And finally, you owe this debt not just to the main character(s), but also to your secondary characters. If they appear in more than one scene, you owe it to your readers to put effort into making them interesting. They don’t have to be as dimensional as your main character(s) but they shouldn’t be ho-hum. Don’t write them off. Write them better.