Michelle Rowen

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Learn character layering by watching Reality TV

I knew there was a reason I watched so much Reality TV. It’s to learn how to improve my writing.

I’ve always been a bit of a surface writer. It usually takes an additional draft to get deeper into the plot and characters. And I’ve tried to wrap my head around what it actually means to have a layered novel, because that’s really the difference between a cute but forgettable read and a keeper book. Emotional depth. Characters with hidden agendas. Etcetera. Even in a humorous book, there still needs to be depth to it.

It clicked for me the other day (which doesn’t mean it will be magically easy for me to do) when I was watching American Idol. This show is very popular. And it’s not simply because it’s a show about kids trying to be voted the best singer. It’s about real people. What does the show do with the contestants they want us to focus on? The ones they want viewers to root for?

They give us more information about them. One’s a single mother working two jobs to keep food on the table. Another looks after his ailing mother. Another lost his voice and was told he’d never speak again (I’m making these up mostly, but you get the gist).

What do these stories have to do with the ‘surface’ of being a singer? Not a heck of a lot. But it gives us insight into their characters. And it makes us want them to be the one who takes home the prize.


This works for almost every Reality show on TV.

Does Extreme Home Makeover just spruce up a house for some generic American family? Nope. They pick families with tragic, heartbreaking, and ultimately inspiring stories. And then they give them a fabulous new house. Layers!

Does LA Ink just tattoo pretty pictures on people? Nope. They tell the story of the person, and thus the reason they want this particular tattoo. A picture tells a thousand words, and so do the stories of the tattoo recipients. Layers!

The layers of your character help make the book more interesting. We don’t just want the boy to fall in love with girl. We want the boy to fall in love with this girl because of who she is and what’s happened to her to make her the person she is today and we’re emotionally invested in having them find their happily ever after.

Agree? Disagree? :-)

BTW, I saw an early cover for Tall, Dark & Fangsome today (a book in which I had to add more layers to the final draft and it’s much better for it) and I luuurvve it! Can’t wait to post it to my website.

2 comments to “Learn character layering by watching Reality TV”

  1. Stargazer
     · January 29th, 2009 at 12:20 pm · Link

    Hi Michelle~
    THat was a great way of putting it! Thanks.
    As far as T.V. shows go for me I cant wait for Survior and TrueBlood with summer.

  2. Charlene Teglia
     · January 29th, 2009 at 3:37 pm · Link

    Layers do make the difference. I love Bujold for layered characters with amazing plots; never seen another author balance the two like she does.

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