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Building Characters is a Piece of (Layer) Cake

Photo of Judy Sternlight

Judy Sternlight

layer cake by jennifer-pallian-8Jg4U4xHu-o-unsplash

photo by Jennifer Pallian

Writing workshop leader Judy Sternlight suggests that layering is the secret to building a good cake and a good character.

Sternlight's class Active Storytelling starts on September 5th.

In my work as an independent book editor, I help writers make their characters live and breathe on the page.

What’s the secret? Layering.

Have you ever tried the Chilean dessert called torta de mil hojas, also known as Thousand Layer Cake? It’s scrumptious. This is not a cake you whip up quickly; it takes preparation, and if you do it right, you’ll send your dinner guests into a state of nirvana. Assembling many layers of thin pastry are a requirement, but the specific fillings are up to the pastry chef. Sometimes, when I’m helping writers to deepen their characters, I think about this cake.

I also recall an exhibit I saw at the American Museum of Natural History called, “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience.” An exploration of how our minds work, it explained that we have inner senses (physical sensations like hunger and thirst, body temperature, high energy or fatigue) as well as outer senses like taste, touch, hearing, sight, and smell, connecting us to our surroundings. Our brains combine our inner and outer senses to help us survive in the world.

Imagine applying this depth of awareness to the characters in your story. They might be engaged in a simple activity, like cleaning out the attic. But while they do this simple task, they’re also experiencing a variety of sensations and desires. Ideally, they also have an important objective, or series of intentions, driving the plot forward.

The mystery novels by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) feature a private investigator who lost part of his leg in a wartime explosion in Afghanistan. Cormorant Strike has plenty of layers—strength and gruff kindness, a fondness for beer, an estranged rock-star father, an empty bank account—but his physical condition is always present, a challenging and sometimes painful circumstance that influences how he navigates through London, and how others see him. It’s a valuable layer that helps readers forge an intimate connection to him.

Try this exercise with your story-in-progress:

Go through your story, scene by scene, and see if you can answer these questions:

  • How do your characters feel in the environment you’ve established—and can you heighten it? Is the space familiar or surprising? Is the air too hot or cold? What does it smell like? The faun in Narnia is accustomed to his wintery home but for Lucy, who arrives there through a supernatural wardrobe, it’s marvelously strange and freezing cold.
  • Do your characters have a specific physical condition, a habit or emotional vulnerability, or a haunting memory that will draw readers in?
  • Can you add a sense of subtext, something bubbling under the surface that informs the scene but is not overtly discussed? In other words, what are your characters hiding from each other?
  • What do they observe about each other—and how will they take advantage of this knowledge?
  • What’s their primary objective as they move through the story—what are they fighting for?

Answering questions like these will allow you to add layers to your story, giving your characters a richness that will stick in the minds of your readers, long after they’ve finished your book.

About the Author

Judy Sternlight

Judy Sternlight was an editor at Random House, Ballantine, and Modern Library. She’s the founder of Judy Sternlight Literary Services and co-founder of 5E, the independent editors’ group. Judy has edited acclaimed writers including Elliot Ackerman, Marie-Helene Bertino, Rita Mae Brown, Mamta Chaudhry, Gwen Florio, Lisa Ko, Peter Matthiessen, Daniel Menaker, and Melodie Winawer. Prior to her publishing career, she performed and taught improvisational theater with Some Assembly Required in NYC. In addition to teaching Active Storytelling at the Center for Fiction, Judy has presented various forms of “The Art of Revision” and “The Business of Publishing” at The Miami Writers Institute, Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, Grub Street, AWP, Pen + Brush, Paragraph, Slice Literary Conference, and the Historical Novel Society.

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