People talk about depth when it comes to writing, but what does it actually mean to give your characters depth? Does it mean that every character needs to have a too-real-for-real-life kind of backstory, where they were forced to gouge out their father’s eye with a spoon by the Russian mafia? Does it mean that characters need to always reveal some terrible secret?

Or more importantly – does it mean that by the end of the novel, your readers have to agree with your characters?

For a case study in what it looks like to create depth, I present Hamilton. This musical does a great job of creating depth using the technique of humanization.

Hamilton

Hamilton is the phenomenal mega-monster musical that is tearing up the block at the moment, and one of the reasons is that its story is so compelling. Taking characters that have been dead for the past three hundred years and bringing them to life is no easy task, but Hamilton accomplishes it in a way that makes us ask, like Stephen Colbert, “Why am I crying about Alexander Hamilton right now?”

One of the techniques that makes Hamilton successful is that it humanizes the villain. For a long time, in fictional and actual life, the only narrative that was told about Aaron Burr was that he shot Alexander Hamilton, in a duel that would definitely contribute to dueling not being a thing anymore. Burr was seen as so bad that every time his name was mentioned, it was with disgust and contempt. In House of Cards, the President even mentions Burr, just to say he doesn’t want to be like him. All of this contributes to a well-identifiable story about Burr.

Why am I crying about Alexander Hamilton right now?

So Hamilton places Burr as the narrator, and in doing so, hit a literary goldmine. It created depth. By putting “the villian” in charge of the narrative for the entire musical (save the last song), we were able to see the frustration, the confusion, the ambition, and the thoughts of one once thought to be unequivocally evil. It allows us to see Burr’s remorse immediately after the duel, with lines like, “Now I’m the villain in your history…” This is how Lin-Manuel Miranda created great depth from what was considered to be a one-dimensional character in history.

Does this mean your readers have to agree with the villain? 

No! And in many cases, they won’t. But in many cases, they won’t agree with your protagonist, either, so it’s worth it to spend the time. Using this technique of humanizing the villain (especially if you’re working with a text or character people are already familiar with) will add depth and nuance to your writing, as it will challenge the protagonist and every other character in your work by having someone who is not that dissimilar to themselves.

Enjoy and keep writing!

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Photographer: Heather R.