Layering Character for Believable Fiction

Layering: the deepest, richest, most compelling aspect of character 

We hear a lot of talk about “layering” as a storytelling device. The more layers a character has, the more complex and individual they are, allowing authors to sidestep cliché and create cast members that are interesting, unique, and compelling. So let’s talk about some effective ways that we can use layering with our characters.

Layering Character with Behavior

All layering is based in the character’s needs.

Louisa May Alcott created layers to Jo March. We all believe Jo is gutsy, tough, smart, creative, and adventurous. Heck, yes. She put the “Oh, boy!” in tomboy. So what gives Jo her layering?

Her tenderness.

Sometimes Jo is wreaking havoc with Laurie, sometimes sassing Marmee, and sometimes swashbuckling around taking off pirate heads in the most dastardly, unladylike way.

However, when Beth is dying, Jo drops everything—reading to her, caring for her, holding her hand and watching her slip away with tears in her eyes. 

This is the layering that makes Jo a three-dimensional character and allows her to step off the page into the lives of her readers. 

We really do vacillate between our tough outer shells and the things that move our hearts. We do both flout authority and spontaneously give of ourselves. We do both make stupid mistakes and accidentally create flashes of light in another’s darkness. These details—the ways in which we act out our values— are the stuff of fiction.

Layering Character with Confusion

Eugene Henderson is an extraordinarily ordinary person. He’s a hearty, good-natured American businessperson who goes on business trips. In fact, he goes on a business trip to Africa. 

When Saul Bellow sent him, in Henderson the Rain King, on a bizarre pilgrimage into the African foothills in search of an elusive tribe, he wanted Henderson blind to himself because he knew that confusion often leads to epiphany.

So he gave Henderson surface motivation to venture into that African wilderness. But he also gave him hidden motivation, a reason for going on this pilgrimage that an ordinary man like Henderson wouldn’t have: an unacknowledged longing to discover something more in life. 

Eventually, the confusion Henderson has about his own hidden side leads him not only to the obscure tribe, but to the tribe’s inexplicable ritual for calling rain, a ritual in which Henderson—precisely because of the qualities of innocent heartiness and good nature that make a him an ordinary businessperson—becomes inevitably entangled.

And the next thing Henderson knows, he’s gotten into an experience that would be strange as hell even for the most conscientiously bizarre. Henderson has accidentally become the tribe’s new Rain King.

Henderson’s transformation from ordinary businessperson to African Rain King is so implausible that it would be simply impossible if it weren’t for Bellows’ meticulous, matter-of-fact record of significant details, which allows the reader to experience the transformation with exactly the same level of oblivion and insight as Henderson. By the time Bellows is done with us, we are Henderson the Rain King, trapped in an inexplicable reality from which we have no escape. 

Layering Character with Two Classical Needs

Vincent Parry is a canonical protagonist, caught between his need to live and his need to love. And I can’t begin to tell you how much fiction—great literature, pulp—has been created through layering these two most classical needs: survival and love.

David Goodis sent Parry into his story in Dark Passage, as so many protagonists are sent, running for his life from very real danger on page one. Violence! Injustice! Death! Oh, no

We all believe enthusiastically in a character’s need to survive.

At the same time, almost the first person Parry meets is a babe. Flirtation! Sex! Passion! 

We also believe with all our hearts in a character’s need to love.

So Parry’s two conflicting needs are not unique to him at all. They’re common to every human animal. Back and forth, throughout the story, Goodis tosses Parry between these two most classical needs: survival, love—survival, love.

Every time Parry thinks he’s on top of survival, something crops up in his need for love: his best friend dies mysteriously shortly after Parry visits him, then a woman he once rejected surfaces.

And every time Parry thinks he’s on top of love, his life is threatened again: a Nosy Parker turns up, someone begins stalking Parry and the babe.

Until eventually Parry must choose between his safety and his passion for the babe—the only possible Climax for this story.

We recognize this, don’t we? Of course we do. Irene Némirovsky used exactly the same needs—survival, love—for her gorgeous story, Dolce, although otherwise the two stories couldn’t be more different. James M. Cain used them for The Postman Always Rings Twice. Emily Brontё twisted the daylights out of them for Wuthering Heights.

A protagonist trapped between their need for survival and their need for love is one of the few eternal plots that we have. When layered with all the myriad significant details of existence and humanity, they become an infinity of stories. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg, really. There are so many ways to add depth and dimension to our characters. What other layering options have you found effective?

Victoria has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She is the author of the Art & Craft of Writing series and offers email subscribers a free copy of Art & Craft of Writing: Favorite Advice for Writers. Catch up with Victoria on twitter or visit her website for more information on her editing services.

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[…] A number of bloggers offer tips for characterization: Laurence MacNaughton reveals the secret to creating characters in 60 seconds; Juliet Marillier takes a look at naming characters in historical fantasy; Anne R. Allen spells out why Mary Sues will kill your story; Melissa Donovan provides writing tips for creating a complex villain; and Victoria Mixon writes about layering character for believable fiction. […]

Lois Simenson
1 year ago

I loved this. My protagonist in WIP is in need to survive and need to love mode, just hadn’t looked at it from this perspective. Thank you 🙂

Victoria Mixon
1 year ago
Reply to  Lois Simenson

You’re very welcome, Lois! I’ve found that it helps so much to simplify the engine driving the story, so you always know what to do whenever you have to make a decision about how your characters will act.

1 year ago

I just love that you’ve told us what to use to layer our characters. Everyone talks about layering as if it’s something we all know, but there’s not a lot of talk about what exactly this looks like. Good stuff!

Victoria Mixon
1 year ago

Layering looks complex to all of us on the outside because it carries so much subtext on the inside. But when we learn how to carefully separate the layers, we discover how simple each layer is–the complexity lies in the subtle space between the layers, where the reader’s imagination lies.

1 year ago

I love the reminder to bring the real world – real motivations, real behaviors, real needs and desires – into fiction to make our characters resonate. People are complex, and what motivates us is complex. Sometimes we want different things, longings that are in conflict, or we’re still trying to understand WHAT we want.

Pushing ourselves as authors to bring that complexity into our writing will allow readers to more fully connect with our characters. 🙂

Victoria Mixon
1 year ago

Yes, Angela!

Joseph Conrad defined art as “a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe.”

We are here to show the reader their own world in such clear, authentic detail that the poignancy and meaning of life leaps out at them in their own epiphany.