So how do we create characters that live and breathe on the page, and stay with the reader for a long time after they're gone? How do we write characters that feel real? I'm definitely still working on improving this myself, but I thought I'd list a few things I've seen done in my favorite books that might help all of us write more three dimensional characters.
1. Characters are NOT place-holders: I recently saw a movie that was quite well done, yet many of the characters felt flat. I thought about it that night and realized that the issue was that the characters felt like place-holders rather than unique individuals. The story was compelling, but the characters were used almost like moving pieces, there mostly to make the story's point. In other words, even for your secondary characters, give them their own unique back-stories and motivations. For example, if you have a drunk father, remember he is his own unique character, not simply "The Drunk Father." Your rebellious teenager is his own unique character, not just "The Rebellious Teenager." This seems like an obvious, overly-general strategy, but I know that for me just keeping this in mind as I write has helped a lot.
2. Triple-check your dialog: One of the quickest ways I've found that characters can fall flat is through poorly written dialog. My general rule of thumb that holds particularly true for dialog is that if it sounds even remotely like something I've heard before, re-write. Read your dialog out-loud, and then if possible, have someone else read it out-loud to you. Sometimes it helps me to physically loosen up, shake my shoulders out, stretch my arms, and then speak in my own, normal way of speaking, the lines I need my characters to say. Hopefully these strategies help us end up with natural dialog that makes our characters sound real.
3. Make sure there's an internal goal: We all know that our characters need to be struggling to accomplish something. Sometimes it's making it to a dance, sometimes its running away from wolves, sometimes its saving the city or country or world from the evil super-villain. These goals are what pull the story forward. But remember that in addition to these plot-moving goals, there also needs to be some very strong internal motivation. Even saving-the-world stakes need to be made personal in order for us to connect with the character.
My favorite example of this done brilliantly is the character of Russel from the Pixar movie Up! What is his external, forward-moving motivation? He wants his scout badge. He wants it so badly he's flying around in a house with a grumpy old man in order to get it. But why does he want it so badly? That is the key, and what Pixar always does so brilliantly. He wants it because he wants that connection with his dad. This is only directly referred to in a few short lines, but those lines really connect us as an audience with his character and really make us feel for him.
4. Give them a flaw: This is another often-stated bit of advice, but it is important. Nobody is perfect, and the characters won't feel real if you try to make them that way. Sometimes this flaw is the cause of all their trouble, sometimes its just something that makes it that much harder to solve the original problem. Whether the flaw is a major obstacle or a handicap, watching the characters strive to overcome it helps them feel real to us.
Think of Jane Austen's Emma. She is a witty, engaging character, but can be incredibly nosy and condescending. In other words, she is majorly flawed. But we see the problems that arise from these flaws, and because Emma does too, and acknowledges that she has lots of improving to do, we can not only forgive her but feel for her and wish the best for her. This imperfection and struggle makes her feel real.
5. How do they feel about other characters?: Perhaps one of the quickest ways to add dimension to our characters is to put them in context with other characters. Going back to our Jane Austen example, think of Mr. Knightley. It's his interactions with Emma that show us who he truly is. We see him check and mentor Emma as well as stick with her through all her mistakes, and we come to love him for it. That's the kind of man he truly is, and it's his relationship with Emma that shows us.
What about characters who are less pleasant than Mr. Knightley? Characters who kind of hate people? Think of Dr. Gregory House. Admittedly his caustic misanthropy can be kind of hilarious (another way of adding dimension). But if that was his only note, don't you think it would get boring? It's House's moments of vulnerability, when we see how much he really truly needs and cares for other people (i.e. Wilson) that give him such beautiful complexity.
Can you think of other tips for writing 3 dimensional characters? What are your favorite examples of well-rounded characters?
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- Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Stories. Due Aug. 30.
- Building Red Anthology: Walrus Publishing, an independent press from St. Louis, Missouri, is now accepting submissions for our sci/fi anthology, Building Red-The Colonization of Mars. Due Nov. 1.
- The Birds We Piled Loosely: The Birds We Piled Loosely is a new online literary magazine looking for work by published and unpublished authors. We are a quarterly magazine focused on poetry, flash fiction/creative nonfiction, photography, and art. Our only requirement is work that surprises and excites us. Due Aug. 31.
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