One Simple Trick to Make Flat Characters Three-Dimensional

Main characters usually come purpose-built with motivation, emotion, flaws, fears and enough details drawn in to let them emerge whole from the page. But what do you do about characters who work in the background, with barely enough page time to cast a shadow?  

Assuming you don’t want to keep them flat for literary effect, the quickest, easiest way to give your characters a little shape is to make them lie.

I find that it gets more difficult to relate to a story when all or most of the supporting characters are flat and functional. But it’s hard to take up space giving them details in the traditional way, so letting these characters lie about something takes care of characterization quickly and easily. A character who lies is displaying motivation, nuance and personality—everything they need to become three-dimensional.

Here are a few ideas to help you get started.

Example 1: The Mundane Lie

So Grandma’s a background character in the story, but you want to make sure your reader remembers her. She fits neatly into the little old lady trope, except for one thing—she lied about where her daughter, your character’s mother, was born. While this is a rather mundane detail, it comes into focus later on in the story, making your reader wonder, Why?

Example 2: The Unexpected Liar

I once had an odd experience at a toll booth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at 11:30pm. A friend and I were headed to Trenton, NJ, but were hopelessly lost. We asked the tollbooth operator, an utterly unremarkable, young college student who was either reading or taking a nap when we pulled up, for directions back up the Turnpike toward central New Jersey. He gave us very specific directions, and we followed each step he gave us—until we pulled up outside the ticket gates at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles. In Philadelphia.

I’ve never figured out why a bored college kid gave us directions that led in the opposite direction, but you can bet I’ve never forgotten that miserable road trip. Characters who lie for no apparent reason that you give the reader are memorable, just like that.

 

What quick tricks do you use to make your background characters feel less flat? Do they ever have to lie  so your readers will remember them? Share your thoughts in the comments.