Creating Character Depth

What is it that makes you fall in love with a character (or characters) in a story?

Do you like your leading men to be the strong alpha type? Should they have flaws? Should they be vulnerable? What about your leading women, should they be strong? Do you think it is okay for a female lead character to be aggressive?

I try to ask myself these questions when developing a character but mostly, the characters in my stories just kind of develop themselves, for the most part. I begin with a basic outline of what character traits my particular character may need to survive the hell I'm about to put them through. From there, they just kind of grow and become more real with each subsequent re-write of the story.

This is where I would like to ask for your advice, and yes, it does require a little reading. You see, I have this lead character that shares the role with my main character in this particular story. The story isn't that important now but a little background on the character in question is.

My character's name is Joseph Johnson. He has a military past and also did contract work for the military (you know, super secret stuff) but was forced to leave the service because of a family crisis. His mother was dying of cancer. Anyway, he now works at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Alabama and moonlights as a recovery agent (bounty hunter.)

In this scene, Joe has just been laid off at his place of employment. He suffers from a mild case of PTSD. In this scene, he experiences a vivid memory that blurs the lines between past and present, nightmares and reality, but I don't want to reveal too much. Yes, I want you (the reader) to think he is just a little unstable, and dangerous. Most of all, I want to show his vulnerability and add depth to his character.

Below is an excerpt from the scene in question. Anyone care to read and provide me with your opinions? If you like this scene and would like to read more, may I present you now with the opportunity to be a beta-reader on some upcoming work of mine?

Joseph Johnson slid the pocket door open and walked out of the tiny guard booth into the afternoon heat to meet the car as it squeaked to a stop at the gate. He knew the occupant sitting in the car, but asked for his identification anyway. The man inside the car pulled an identification card out of his shirt pocket and surrendered it to him. The man was Joseph's supervisor, Jeff Tucker, but he still compared the photo on the identification card to Mr. Tucker's face, he always followed proper protocol.
"Joseph, would you stop by my office after your shift this morning?" Mr. Tucker took his identification card back from Joe and slid it back into his shirt pocket.
"Yes, sir," Joseph answered, and added, "have a nice day, sir," as Mr. Tucker drove away. He gave a theatrical salute as he turned to see his shift partner, Ray, snickering from inside the guard shack.
"What was that all about?" Ray opened the door for Joseph as he stepped into the small shack. "You think it's the cutbacks people been talking about?"
"I don't know." Joseph said as he scooted in front of the small window air conditioning unit, the feeling of the cool air sending a chill through his sweat-soaked shirt. Although his skin felt cool, Joe felt heat rising in his core. He couldn't afford to lose his job. He'd just started working at the plant two years before, back when he was fresh out of the Army, and caring for his mother through her battle with cancer. He looked at Ray, but had nothing more to say.
"Well, what do think?" Ray finally said, apparently unable to handle the silence.
Joseph looked away for a moment, finally answering just to shut Ray up. "I think I'll find out at the end of my shift."
He spent the last few minutes of his shift looking out the window of the guard shack. Whatever it was about, he just wanted to get it over with. Joseph simply opened the door and squeezed his muscular frame out of the small shack when his replacement showed up.
"Good luck," Ray said, giving Joseph a mock salute as the door shut.
"Thanks," was all Joseph could think to say. He walked, as quickly as he could, through the parking lot, reaching the cool air of the employee break room within a few short seconds of leaving his post at the guard shack.
Joseph found his time card among the hundred or so others. Time cards were scattered sparsely throughout the large holder. Joseph took notice that, each day, one or two more cards disappeared from the holder. He methodically pushed his card into the slot on the front of the machine, waiting for it to jump, before pulling it back out and putting it back in its spot on the wall. He walked to the employee locker room to change out of his blue security guard uniform and into blue jeans, a tank tee shirt, and a loose-fitting guayabera before venturing up the stairs to his supervisor's office. He knocked on the door, and was told to enter. Mr. Tucker was sitting behind his desk as Joseph walked in the room.
"Have a seat, Mr. Johnson." Mr. Tucker leaned forward in his leather office chair, and shuffled papers nervously on his desk.
Joseph took the chair directly in front of the desk and crossed one leg over the other, trying to appear confident, unshaken by the sudden summons to his boss's office. He had a good idea why his boss called him in, and the thought made him wish he'd gone directly to his truck instead of the office.
"I don't how to say this, Joseph." Mr. Tucker stared at an open file on his desk as he spoke. "You know I personally think you've been doing a great job here, and—"
"Just tell me," Joseph blurted out. He didn't really want to hear it, but wanted to get it over with. He felt heat rising in his face. He could not decipher the mix of emotions coursing through his mind. He wasn't sure whether he was about to fall into a violent fit, or tear up and have a little emotional meltdown in front of his, soon to be, former boss.
Life was so much easier in combat.
He missed his life as a covert operator, and it was times like these that made him long for times when his only decisions were to run or shoot. Instead, he was faced with the emotional hell of remaining calm while some pencil-necked geek spat shallow compliments at him while firing him. Although his mind was moving at a hundred miles an hour, he simply sat motionless, staring at Mr. Tucker.
"Look," Mr. Tucker said. "I know you've got a perfect attendance record here. You're always on time, and willing to make suggestions to better our procedures, but I have to be fair ..." His boss drifted into silence, looking like he was trying to think of some other way to tell him the bad news.
"Just spill it," Joseph said. "Are you firing me or not?"
Joseph watched his boss's reaction. Mr. Tucker tensed noticeably, his lips nearly parting. He could not tell whether Mr. Tucker was just nervous or if he was genuinely scared, thinking Joseph might come over his desk at any moment and strangle him. Joseph maintained his cool front, but on the inside, he was giving serious consideration to actually jumping over the boss's desk.
"We're not firing you, Joseph," Mr. Tucker finally admitted. "We're just laying you off until we can afford to hire you back."
"Either way, I'm not getting a paycheck." Joseph stood and turned to leave.
"Wait, Joseph," Mr. Tucker yelled. "I didn't want to do this."
Joseph didn't stop, or even turn to look back, but his boss continued talking anyway.
"You know we've had to cut our workforce down to two shifts. We just can't support the security staff. We'll bring you back as soon ..."
Joe could still hear his former boss yelling as the office door shut behind him, trying to convince him he wasn't being fired.
A blast of hot humid air washed over him, like the exhaust from a jet engine as he left the building and walked across the vast blacktop parking lot to his truck. The sudden wave of heat sent his mind to another time and place. As he opened the door and sat on the searing vinyl seat, he was suddenly strapping himself into the seat of a Chinook helicopter. Wind and heat was replaced with deafening turbine whine as he pulled the thick webbed strap across his waist with one hand while gripping his weapon in the other.  Other members of his team were strapping in as well. Kenyon sat down across from him, giving the thumbs up. They were all secure. All eight members of the team made it out of the small compound but an angry enemy was not far behind. One of the helicopter’s crew handed him a headset. Chatter from the crew  cut through the whining of the powerful helicopter engines as Joe slipped the headphones over his ears.
“Ready rear?” One of the pilots called over the intercom.
The crew member in the back of the helicopter looked at Joe, raising his dark visor as he gave the thumbs up. Joe scanned his team one last time before returning the thumbs up to the crew member.
“Ready rear,” the crew member responded.
“We’re on the go,” Joe heard through his earphones as the big helicopter started to move.
The team were all smiling at each other, giving their own thumbs up as dust filled the cabin and the helicopter lifted off the ground. Looking out the small porthole window, Joe saw a small group of enemy soldiers shielding themselves from the blowing dust as the helicopter moved into clean air. One of the soldiers raised something onto his shoulder. Joe immediately recognized the object as a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He reached for the button that would allow him to speak through his headphones but one of the members of the helicopter crew yelled out, cutting his own actions short.
“Break right, BREAK RIGHT!” Without response from the pilots, the helicopter lurched into a steep bank, slamming Joe into the metal-framed wall from the force. His view out the window turned to blue sky with flashes of brilliant light as the pilots dispersed countermeasure flares in an attempt to throw off the incoming missile. Nearly at the same time, the right rear corner of the helicopter opened up and a ball of flames raced forward through the cabin. Joe turned away and raised an arm to shield his head from the flames. A cacophony of chatter assaulted his burning ears as the pilots made their mayday call. The helicopter banked hard left, nearly pushing Joe out of his seat before hitting hard into something He hoped was the ground. The cabin filled with dust and, though he heard the engines winding down, Joe still heard pops and loud reports that were either shots being fired into the helicopter or the helicopter itself coming apart. As the passing shadows from the spinning rotors slowed, one of the crew members ran toward the back of the aircraft, grabbing his M16 along the way.
“Go, go, go.” The crew member yelled, motioning with his arms as he disappeared into a thick blanket of dust at the rear of the helicopter.
Dazed, Joe stared for a moment at the crew member, not sure if his legs would support him. Then, his training took over, and he was unbuckled and running through the shattered hull at the back of the helicopter, taking up a defensive position. Other members of his team soon joined him until they formed a semi-circle outside the crash site, weapons pointed in the general direction they’d been attacked from. A thick cloud of dust still hovered over the area but he heard the distinct rattle of an Apache helicopter cannon, no doubt taking out whoever fired the rocket at them.
A sudden screech and hiss caught his attention, pulling him from the memory that, moments ago, felt as real as the day it happened. A semi-truck turned into the fenced receiving area beyond the parking lot. Joe swiped a hand across his face, wiping the sweat from his brow, his thoughts still clouded between realities of the past and the nightmare of the present. He turned the ignition key, bringing the truck to life, immediately cranking the air conditioning up until cool air blasted from the vents, making the hairs on his arms dance. As the air in the truck cooled, he reached under his seat and retrieved a Glock 26. A thin smile grew across his face as he inserted the magazine into the grip and pulled the receiver back, chambering a round. He liked the weight of it, and the grip fit nicely in his hand. It was a light, convenient handgun he often used as a backup on missions when he was employed by the government. He pulled a concealment holster from under his seat, slipped it into the back of his pants, and pushed the small pistol securely into it. He pulled his shirt over it before driving his truck through the maze of cars in the parking lot, out the gate.
The sun was falling toward the horizon by the time Joseph pulled up in front of the bail bond office. It was that time in the early evening when things were still quiet. There was little activity at the police station across the street, but that would change by the end of the night. As soon as the door closed behind him, Jake Ballinger, the owner of JB bonds, motioned him to come around the front counter. Joseph followed Jake to the smaller space in the corner he claimed as his office.
"Got a new skip for you, Joe." Jake stood up and moved around his desk, waving a file folder at Joseph as he positioned himself on the other side of the counter.
I know one cannot tell from this scene, but this is part of a paranormal romantic suspense (for lack of any other distinction) story that I am in the process of rewriting. A few of you may recognize this character but, believe me, if you've already read the previous story, you will scarcely recognize the new rewrite.

What say you?


  1. I'm with you on letting the characters develop as the story progresses. I usually have a basic sense of what traits they need, but depth takes place during the first editing; my first drafts are a kind of outlining phase and I don't worry much over minor mistakes.

    As for this excerpt, it appears to be in the first draft stage. Its rough; more of a laundry list. His movements are mechanical, flat and emotionless. And the PTSD flashback is misplaced - there is nothing really to trigger such a vivid scene. The events from opening the security gate, getting fired, flashback, and arrival at the second job are too fast paced. Perhaps set him up in a rigid, normal daily routine so we get to know him as a person before throwing in all his troubles and quirks. Have you seen the movie Equalizer? See how his character is portrayed in his routine, but you just know there is something "off" in all that obsessive routine.

    I will beta read for you when you are ready. You still have my donnahole gmail?

    1. Thank you for your comment. I write in the same way. My first draft is basically an exagerated outline. As for this excerpt, it is new. I just wrote it this last weekend in an attempt to provide more of Joseph's background other than 'military.' I'm still working out some issues with his service that surface later in the story. Again,, thanks. Your evaluation really brings light to some things I'd not considered. Of course, it all seemed perfect and brilliant to me as it always does in my own mind. I do not have your gmail. I noticed that your blog moved but the notice did not link to the new blog. I'm following now.


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