How To Create Three-Dimensional Characters

The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell, together, as quickly as possible – Mark Twain.

If your readers find your characters boring, flat, or stereotypical, a great plot won’t save you. Even plot-driven novels need three-dimensional characters.

Creating three-dimensional characters means making your characters as complex and unique as a real person. And to do that, you need to know them as well as you know yourself (maybe better).

Because I’m a planner, I use a character worksheet for at least my main character, love interest, and villain. If you’re a pantser and learn about your characters as you write, keep these points in mind and jot them down someplace as you go. Then if you finish your first draft and find a character isn’t three-dimensional, you can look at your chart and see what area you missed.

Formative Events In Their Past

Three-dimensional characters don’t leap fully formed from a test tube (unless you’re writing a sci-fi novel). They were born somewhere and grew up somewhere. Rather than detailing every aspect of their childhood, I focus on the pivotal events that formed their personality and directed their future. These come in four types.

  • Catastrophes: the death of a parent, sexual abuse by a babysitter
  • Small Incidents: going hungry because they lost their lunch money, overhearing their cousin say how boring they are
  • Life Patterns: being overlooked because they grew up in a family of talented siblings, never learning how to make friends because they moved around a lot
  • Family Values: don’t show emotion or affection in public, work must always come before play

The formative events in their past should act as proof of why your characters are the way they are, even if the reader never learns about them.

Major Weaknesses

Flawed characters are more relatable. As readers, we also feel like we can learn from a character with weaknesses. A perfect character just makes us defensive.

Remember that a strength for one person can also be a weakness for another depending on the situation and how they use that characteristic. It’s partly a matter of perspective. The flip side of determination is stubbornness.

Major Strengths

SuperheroLimit the number you give to your hero. In your head, he might very well be smart, handsome, brave, loyal, funny, determined, creative, sensitive–you get the idea–but for your novel, you need to pick the ones that best characterize him and focus on those. It’s the difference between a kaleidoscope of color where everything blends together and you don’t remember any single shade (regardless of how beautiful the result is), and a black wall with a single bright splash of red and a single bright splash of blue.

Give your villain at least one real strength as well. You’ll humanize him, and in the process, make him a more formidable opponent for your hero. (For more on creating believable villains, check out my post A Walk On The Dark Side.)

As you’re setting up your villain, try to make him strong where your hero is weak.

What Do They Want and Why?

Brandilyn Collins’ calls this desire in her book Getting into Character. Randy Ingermanson calls this ambitions and goals in his book Writing Fiction For Dummies. Both ideas are basically the same, but Randy’s terms help separate the two levels that you need to figure out.

An ambition is an abstract, high-level concept. For example, I want a well-behaved dog or I want a happy marriage.

A goal is specific, concrete, and measurable. If your ambition is to have a well-behaved dog, your goal might then be to have a dog who doesn’t beg during dinner and who obeys all your commands.

The steps your character takes to reach their goal and the obstacles they face in their quest are what drive your plot.

Along with setting out my character’s ambition and goal, I also include why they want to reach that goal. What’s the motivation behind it? You’ll often find this is connected to a formative event in their past.

Obviously the worksheet I use to create three-dimensional characters is longer than this. I also figure out things like their greatest fear, what makes them angry, bad habits, quirks, and so on.

Jody Hedlund’s character worksheet is almost exactly like the one I use. You can also find other examples at Charlotte Dillon’s website.

My suggestion is to start with these as templates to customize your own.

What’s the one thing you absolutely need to know about your character before you start writing? Do you use a worksheet like me, or learn about your characters on the fly?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

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7 comments on “How To Create Three-Dimensional Characters

  1. I write a bio on my characters before I even start to plot. I read a great idea by Jenni (Holbrook) Talty one day – write your character bios in a spreadsheet so you can always go back and reference (especially if you’re a serial writer).

    I also took Bob Mayer’s character workshop online and it helped me develop my characters more than I already had.

    One last note, I want to purchase a book that I’ve heard about – Tarot for Writers by Corinne Renner. It supposedly helps you build your characters when you get stumped. I heard about it at DFWcon by Candy Havens.

    Great post!

    • Oh, and I almost forgot. I joined a writing group that meets every Saturday and they use a 2-3 page character worksheet. I’ve yet to fill one out, but I will before I start WIP #2! 🙂

  2. Hi Marcy:

    Well, just finished reading and downloading (for my own personal use) your tips on How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters.

    I have done this with the novel I’m working on. But didn’t think it was an important task to do before writing a short story. Guess I will now.

    Tracy Campbell

  3. Pingback: Making This Year Better Than The Last | Marcy Kennedy & Lisa Hall-Wilson

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