Characters or Ciphers? Which Are You Casting in Your Story?

This week’s video talks about why your characters may be as one-dimensional as those in The Monuments Men and offers an easy tip for adding dimension.

Video Transcript:

Just because you have a character in your story doing something does not mean he’s a character. It’s not enough to give a character a name, give him a goal, give him a few witty lines, make him cry when his friend dies. So what more do I want?

What I want is to discover characters with dimension. This becomes a little more obvious—and in some senses easier to accomplish—in stories that are blatantly character-driven, because the whole story is about discovering who these people are. But dimensional characters are just as important in plot-driven stories. That doesn’t mean you have to take time away from your action. It doesn’t take chapters on end. All it takes is a few almost throwaway lines.

This is on my mind right now because I was extremely disappointed with The Monuments Men. It had all the earmarks of a great story, and yet it fell flatter than a pancake, largely because its fantastic cast had zero to play with in the character department.

Who are these people? We don’t know, because they never tell us about themselves.

What are their personal reasons for joining the Army and hunting down stolen art? But then, who wouldn’t want to risk his for a painting, right?

The sad thing is that all George needed to do to bring these characters to life was to sow a few interesting tidbits here and there. Hints into the characters’ pasts. Insights into their motives. Personal dichotomies that reveal all is not as it seems on the surface.

A few well-timed sequel scenes in which the characters get to reflect, discuss, worry, doubt would all have been good too. But even just a few simple, almost offhanded comments about what lies under the surface would have done marvels for this story.

So take a look at your story and what you’ve revealed about your characters. Who knows? There may be some marvels waiting for you to uncover.

Tell me your opinion: How have you made your characters pop off the page?


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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Matthew Eaton says

    I haven’t made them myself because it never interested me when I used to write. I’m one of those people that if it doesn’t interest me, I won’t even bother acknowledging it.

    Then again, that’s why I just quit writing all together. Between my problems with reading fiction and just not caring about what a reader will think about what I write (and the sheer exhaustion of trying to care, but failing miserably), maybe I’ll just be the customer service rep for the rest of my days.

    Great article though, some good insight that I’m sure will help someone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Aww, don’t stop writing. 🙁 Absolutely nothing wrong with writing solely for yourself. In some ways, it’s a lot more fun!

    • “A frustrated customer service rep gives up his dream of writing when his motivation tanks. But when an annoying customer complains about his attitude and he gets fired . . .”

      sounds like the start of a story – you can have it, Matthew. Good luck whatever you do 🙂

      Thanks for a great article KM – and I will check out the book Marcy mentioned. I always learn something from your posts.

  2. Hi K.M. – I use Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel workbook to help take my characters, and plot up a notch (and sometimes, up a thousand notches). I write a first draft, then use that workbook as my literary bible with its specific exercises. Great post.

  3. Absolutely true! Characters have to be REAL PEOPLE. If they are flat, they will not hold interest, and they lose their potential within the story to actually create effect. People relate to people – not merely characters. There is a difference. Great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true. Anybody can create a cipher. To create a character that seems like he could actually be alive in our world, that’s the mark of a great storyteller!

  4. thomas h cullen says

    Being completely sincere – there’s absolutely no understating it.

    To a degree, this topic of discussion existing misses the point:

    If character is story (an idea which I do believe in), there then for the most part shouldn’t be the need to shoehorn certain things in, or manipulate your character’s presentation through the story….

    The author already should know how to write their character, as they’re supposed to already know their story.

    Know your story – you’ll then by default know your character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s true as far as it goes, although it’s a little more complicated in the actual execution. We could also flip that on its head and say that if we know the character, we know the story.

      • thomas h cullen says

        True – that’s why I say “to a degree”.

        It’s remarkable, how a story’s entire narrative framework can be dismantled, re-assembled, upended, and turned inside out etc by sincere character evaluation:

        How a story’s actual essence can entirely be revamped.

  5. Your blogs are so so helpful. Thank you

  6. Carleen M. Tjader says

    Your blog always gives me valuable information, inspiration, and encouragement. Just read and made notes of your tips on beginnings, trimming sentences, and correct punctuation and grammar.
    One of the most concise blogs I read.

  7. Jason Sharp says

    This is one of my great problems, making characters pop. I wish I had more of a grip on how to do that. This article was a big help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed the piece. I actually followed this video up with one today, talking more about positive ways to accomplish this.

  8. As a fresh (new) writer I often struggle with how to break into my action and add background details without it seeming awkward. I’ve compromised by trying to add “tells” . I’ll have a character bite their lip or glance away. Some gesture that reveals their inner state. I think, for me, action is less intimate than revealing their personal stories and maybe I’m still struggling with that intimacy.
    Thanks for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The beauty of books is that they allow us straight into our characters’ brains – unlike a movie, which has to rely on visual clues and outright dialogue. Novelists get to go right to the heart of the matter and explore the characters’ very thoughts.

    • thomas h cullen says

      I’ve just given a bit of your writing a try Sia – it does have character.

      Exactness can be accomplished, as far as an exact personality goes, and/or the exact sense of a scene; patience and work’s the key – as it is with everything.

  9. Thank you for your comment, Thomas. I appreciate that you took the time to read my writing. I’ll keep what you said in mind. You’re a sweetie for bothering.

    • thomas h cullen says

      Because of reality’s state of repetition, always the very same, I’m now motivated to make that effort – something in fact quite ironic:

      The all sameness of life’s routine is always what motivates us unwilling to make effort.


  10. Catherine says

    Exactly. In the real world, people are constantly learning new things and maturing and learning life skills like how to handle people, so your characters should too! Presumably, since your character(s) is part of a story, they will grow in even larger ways than most people in reality do. They might grow in bravery or loyalty, or they might truly get to know themselves.

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