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Using Layers in Character Development

The development of characters is one of my favorite parts of writing. It is in this process that a spark of an idea grows into a believable person. The many layers that make up the character are the reason the reader will empathize with or rally against such a character. For me, the more depth to a character the better. In reality we are made up of shades of gray. No one is truly good nor fully evil (well, maybe not) but those multi-faceted elements make the best characters in fiction. I've never been a fan of the hero who is a vanilla goody-goody, or the villain who is crazy for no good reason. Good characterization makes them jump off the page and into reality.

This is true of television and film as well. One of the things that keeps me watching a serialized drama is the characters. If the characters are one dimensional I'm not going to invest my time following their journey.

I study alot of different fictional resources, television being one of those outlets, and one of the best things about streaming services is the ability to discover some gems I may have missed out on before. Recently, one of those gems for me was the show The Magicians.

But it wasn't the plot which drew me in. The story, much like the books it was based off of, seems like a fumbled mix of every popular fantasy novel over the last few decades thrown together in a tequila bath. But within that mess of a plot one solitary character kept my attention to the degree that I wanted to follow her journey, and her journey alone, over 4 seasons.

Alice Quinn is the studious, shy bookworm type girl that also happens to be the most powerful magician in the school. On paper it would sound like she's a ripoff of Hermione Granger from Harry Potter but there are some specific differences to the character that brings a fresh element to her. For one thing, Alice doesn't even like magic very much. To her its a means to an end.

From what I've read in the books (which honestly hasn't been alot) Alice comes off as your typical nerd, shy trope. It's my understanding that Alice is the the one on the TV show that most closely epitomizes the character from the books. That being said its what the showrunners and writers develop for Alice that kept her story shining even in the midst of the muddled main plot. And that's called layers. It's easy to fall back on tropes without designation but when you emphasize why someone acts the way they do the reader/viewer can emphasize.

I also have to pay tribute to the wonderful performance by actress Olivia Taylor Dudley who brought subtle nuances to the character that you wouldn't notice except that Alice changes so much over the course of the series that Olivia showcases many different layers for that character. At one point she's even talking to herself and its a class in acting to see the different choices being made. What I really love is that Alice is absolutely stunning but Olivia plays her with quirks like a small change in her voice, and the way she hunches her shoulders to hide herself from the world, that tells you everything you need to know about this girl's self-esteem.

Later in season one of the show Alice tells the lead character Quentin that she knows she's a powerful magician but she holds back everyday because she's afraid of what people might think of her. Layers!


How can you relate this to your writing?

When we write our characters we have traits in mind that we want to add to them. I start with a thorough breakdown of their backstory, their description, and anything else pertinent to that character. Even if I don't ever use these traits I know they are there to draw from.

When you first create your character they are essentially a lump of clay waiting to be formed. As they go through the challenges you place in front of them they either grow or die. This strips away the blobs of clay, reveal the deepest layer which is the essence of the character underneath. It's their why, they're motivating factor. What makes them do the things they do? How does their past experiences influence their decisions? The more layers you have to peel back and reveal characteristics the more you'll involve your reader.

For me, the scenes I'm writing play out in my mind the same way they would dance across a TV screen. So watching the choices Olivia Taylor Dudley makes for her character Alice in those scenes, and honing in on the dialogue the writers have chosen for her, really shows you how this young woman Alice is growing and changing throughout the show. This is so important when writing a series especially. In essence, Alice has about three different versions of herself come out through the show's progression.

I'd venture to say that I'm drawn into a story more by the characters than the plot. Don't get me wrong, a well thought out plot is essential. But if the characters are strong enough that's when they take over and steer the ship right into the heart of the reader (or audience).

The actresses on the show Revenge brought to life two of the best characters I've seen on television. The characters themselves of Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke and Victoria Grayson were born in the mind of talented writer Mike Kelley who gave them the layers and depth that made them realistic characters that audiences could relate with. Emily does not always make heroic choices and Victoria actually shows heart sometimes which makes you feel empathy for her.

For those who don't know the show the story REVENGE is just that. Emily Thorne sets out to exact revenge on the Grayson family for crimes against her father. What unfolds is a beautiful journey of complex characters, plotlines, and some of the best drama I've seen in a long time. But it started for me with characterization.

In Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke (played beautifully by the lovely Emily VanCamp) you have the best onion of emotions I've ever seen. And layer after layer is peeled back to reveal her multiple sides. Though her main source of strength in her mission is to be cold and detached we find that this is not the case, just a defensive strategy. Which is a necessary component to have a likeable hero. If Emily was just an emotionless robot then we couldn't root for her. But because she has these softer moments, and we see that she is human, we empathize. She makes mistakes, she's not perfect, she does things that push the boundaries but she still holds true to her morality. And Emily VanCamp delivers these moments, both hard and soft, with such skill that she makes Emily Thorne one of the strongest female characters I've seen in a long time. 

On the flip side you have the antagonist. They are usually the antithesis of the hero. In this case, Victoria Grayson is the thorn in Emily's side and the source of her pain and want for revenge. Victoria reminds me a bit of Alexis Carrington from Dynasty with her scheming and power. But, there is so much more to the character that, at times, you may find yourself rooting for Victoria as well. The actress who portrays Victoria so beautifully, Madeleine Stowe, made a point of telling production "I'll do anything you want as long as I know the backstory behind it." That is is the essence of a good character. Their motive. Evil for evil sake isn't any good because its not believable. But if you give them a reason for their malice it makes you understand why they do what they do. So their is a wonderful scene where Victoria tells her son Patrick (played by one of my favorite actors Justin Hartley) about something horrible that happened to her when she was 15. The delivery by Stowe in that scene was fabulous. It made you empathize with Victoria.

So when it comes down to it, characterization is all about breathing life into your vision of that character. Give them flaws, and depth, and have them make mistakes. These multi-faceted layers are what makes them real, gives them believability, and allows readers or viewers to empathize and relate to the character.

By the way, if you haven't seen Revenge or The Magicians I highly recommend both.




"Original Cyn" Cynthia Vespia writes fantasy novels with edge. This blog is dedicated to all things fantasy and my author journey.


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