From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, August 4, 2014

5 Tips for Writing 3 Dimensional Characters

I submit to you that writing well-rounded and complex characters is maybe the most important part of writing a story. Some may say that a page-turning plot is the most important, but engaging characters are what pull the reader in and keep your story in the reader's mind long after they read the last page. I have read plenty of books and seen plenty of movies where the plots were slow, but because I cared so much about what happened to the characters, I was hooked the entire time. And vice versa. I have read plenty of books with thrilling plots that I raced through, then when I was done, threw the book over my shoulder and could hardly remember anything I'd just read. (*ahem* Da Vinci Code anyone? *ahem*)

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?

Write on!

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  1. That last one can really help you flesh out the characters. I saw on one blog where the person had written down what each character thought about the others. I tried it and it really helped.

    1. I always think of the opening to the short story collection, "The Things They Carried." The first story starts by talking about a soldier who carries around letters from a girl at home and pretends they're love letters. That right there, that little glimpse of how one character feels about another, is enough to be a really good hook and character development.

  2. I am so glad you commented on my blog, giving me the opportunity to find you. Love your blog!! I like how you described the need for an internal goal. It clicked for me. That example is perfect. I need to write up the internal goals for all my primary characters... thank you!

    1. Likewise!! Your blog is great! I'm glad these tips are helpful, best of luck in your current writing projects!

  3. Excellent advice. I'll keep it mind next round of revising. I'm sure it will help. :-)

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

    1. Glad to help! Best of luck with your revisions :)

  4. Great tips, Sarah. Asking myself "why" a character wants to achieve a particular goal is a terrific way to make sure I have well-rounded and interesting characters. I also love the idea of identifying what the characters think and feel about the others.

    Relating to my characters this way is more helpful to me than filling out the character interview charts.

    1. Awesome! Yeah, I like seeing how my characters interact with each other more than character interview charts too.

  5. As usual, great stuff here at your website, Sarah. So true, the story needs to unfold as a result of character motivations and choices rather than the characters being secondary.

    Great reminder and good tips.

    Thank you for sharing :)

    1. Thank you so, so much! I really appreciate the kind words. And you're absolutely right, knowing our characters and their motivations is key to an engaging story.


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