‘Flesh out’ your characters. What does that mean?

Congratulations!  You’ve completed your manuscript and now you’re ready to take the plunge, stand naked before your audience, and expose all to your chosen beta readers.  Two points I want to make before I go any further:

  • If you don’t have any beta readers, get some…now.  Don’t walk.  Run.  You need them before you even think about subbing to an agent or publisher.
  • Do not invite others to give their honest opinions and critiques if you are not ready to hear what they have to say.  I understand that criticism is sometimes hard to take and it can hurt.  Sometimes the critiques feel like personal attacks, but they aren’t.  Your betas have your best interest at heart.  They want to see you succeed.  Keep that in mind as you let their suggestions sit for 24 hours.

With that said, let’s look at one of the most common suggestions your beta readers might say:  “You need to ‘flesh out’ your characters more.”

What in the heck does that mean?

I know when I first started putting my novel out there for critiques, this comment always baffled me.  As a then newbie writer, I often wondered what it meant and how does one flesh out characters?

In a nutshell (pardon the cliché), it means your characters probably read like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, always acting and/or doing expected things in expected scenarios. They’re not unique but rather born of stereotypical molds.  Not good.  In order to make your characters – and in turn, your novel – stand out, you have to make your characters unique.  Have them shatter the mold.  Make them act against their inherent nature.  Flesh them out.

How do you do this?  You have to get deliciously mean with your characters.  Deny them the things they expect, or make something happen to them they don’t expect.  For example, my main character, David, from my novel, In the Shadow of the Dragon King, is a wealthy kid who’s grown up not wanting for anything.  He’s had everything given to him, therefore is able to fart around in his free time to do whatever he wants.  In my first draft of the story, David didn’t really grow.  He remained this sort of nice but pompous jerk who thought he had life all figured out.  In my 12th draft, he realizes he’s not the biggest fish in the sea, and he certainly doesn’t know near as much as he thought he did.  He no longer has the world at his fingertips.  He can’t go to his godmother and have her intervene on his behalf.  He isn’t privy to the luxuries of life – a comfy bed, food to eat, clean clothes, showers.  He doesn’t have access to all his millions to buy the necessities he needs:  a razor, deodorant, toilet paper.  He must learn to improvise and rely on his instincts, luck, his best friend and a few unusual ‘gifts’ if he is to survive the perils facing him.  In essence, I’ve ‘fleshed him out’.

Making your characters act against their nature exposes what they are really made of.  The reader relates to them because now your characters are no longer single dimensional cutouts.  They are now human, with real flaws and attributes, real fears and strengths.  They’ll be going through physical and emotional changes, and your readers will gladly follow along because they want to see your main characters succeed and win while seeing the bad guy epically fail.  Your readers are now hungry, salivating to find out how your characters are going to get out of the mess you created.

So, the next time your beta reader, agent or editor tells you to ‘flesh out your characters’, it’s time for you to step out of your comfort zone.  Abandon the norm.  Force your mind to do the unexpected.  Your characters will be better for it and your readers will thank you for it.