How to write three-dimensional characters

three-dimensional characters

In your attempt to create characters your readers crave, these five steps can help you get to know and understand your players well enough to write living, breathing three-dimensional characters on the page.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

What is a three-dimensional character?

Remember that book you read, the one with the character you fell in love with a long time ago? The character you wanted to be friends with, live with, maybe even marry? Without the author’s adept touch at developing that character, he never would have had such an impact – you might’ve skimmed him over, or not even finished the book.

Writing three-dimensional characters is no accident, it’s intentional. You don’t just start writing and hope they’ll appeal to a reader. So, what can you do to infuse style, personality, and color into your characters to make them memorable and engaging to your reader?

1. Create a character bible

List your characters, each on his or her own page or a column in a spreadsheet, and note every defining item you can conceive. Include height, weight, skin color, hair color, hair style, eye color, age, education, birthplace, parental relationship, marital status, hobbies, occupation, political affiliation, car, clothing preferences, dialect, religion, favorite food, favorite music, favorite movie, favorite color, shoe size, jewelry, and so on. Anything that might bring his or her image to life.

2. Expand your character bible

Develop these descriptions to include personalities and histories. What is their worst fear, second worst fear, biggest failure, biggest regret, missed opportunity, biggest success, scar, weakness, strength, habit, quirk, deepest dream or desire, addiction?

3. Interview the character

Ask the character questions, then write his responses as he would actually speak in person. Don’t just list his answers, channel him, transcribe his words and include his stuttering, cursing, uhs and ums, big words, choppy sentence, misuse of words, humor, sarcasm, machismo, flirtation, and body language. Practice writing his dialogue so that it comes naturally as you craft the story. Ask him how he likes his steak cooked, or how would he react if he came home and his house was burgled? What does he think about his parents, or his boss at work? Think of everyday conversations and bounce them off your players, reaching for a wide range of reactions.

4. Define his status

Is your character a power figure, a peacemaker, or a follower? What makes your three-dimensional characters believable is often recognizing how they will change depending upon the situation they step into or the other players they encounter. A sixth grader amongst high schoolers acts entirely different than a sixth grader around other sixth graders, or around third graders. Personalities shift depending upon the people, places, and moments. Understand how your character would morph as situations alter.

5. Write without dialogue tags

You already have a feel for your character’s speech patterns after interviewing him, but attempt to write your dialogue without tags, like “he said,” “she cried,” “they shouted.” Instead, use beats as much as possible, showing the character’s actions, reactions, and foreshadowing.

We usually don’t speak in reaction to our surroundings. We cover our eyes in the sun, talk over our shoulders, stroke a cheek, cross our arms, pace, make a fist. When you can write a dialogue between players without tags and your readers can still follow the conversation, you’re mastering your characters.

Check the following excerpt from Echoes of Edisto, my third book in the Edisto Island Mystery Series. Note there’s only one tag in the entire excerpt, yet you have no problem recognizing who speaks to whom.

“Callie?” Beverly caught her daughter in the hallway before Callie exited and reached the chief. “They’re leaving a mess on my doors,” she complained, pointing at the fingerprint technician.

Yes, let’s worry about smudges and ignore the crime. “No other option, Mother. They’ll take your prints as well, to rule them out of the ones they find. Just do as they ask. And can you bring me about three aspirin?”

Beverly held up her hands, flipping them over to analyze her nails.

“Jesus, Mother, they aren’t here to inspect your manicure.”
Beverly snatched her fingers closed. “I know that.”

Why write three-dimensional characters?

Regardless of the genius of your plot or elaborate scheme, if the characters don’t jump off the page, the story will fall flat. Plot does not drive the characters: characters drive the plot. And most of the time a reader will thoroughly enjoy any tale if the characters are remarkable and entertaining. And you cannot make them entertaining unless you write them as if you’ve met them in person.




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  5. Good points. When people ask me to look at their work, flat characters are a huge problem with beginners, and even some who are published. I create as I write, which helps, but makes writing go slowly. I’m a strong admirer of L’Amour, who did the same. Notes are added in the writing of the first draft, sometimes lasting thru several drafts. I do a characterization beginning with a list of names and statistics: Name, presumed age, job(s), ect. One invaluable book I have is the Zodiac on personalities. While not a believer in such things, we had a number of friends who were Gypsies that were strong believers that each ‘sign’ holds what a person will be like. If you know the sign they were born under, you have their personality and a basis of how they react in a given situation. Another thing I recommend is to overwrite everything, then trim away the ‘reporting’ material to make it flow with the story.

  6. ‘Plot does not drive the characters: characters drive the plot.’
    BOTH drive each other and both are subordinate to the story and its particular requirements.

    Characters can be over-detailed if they discourage the reader from using his or her imagination in making the ‘movie’ we all make when reading or listening to a story, and which we have all done for thousands of years before movies were invented. This is more obvious in action/adventure type stories, though character certainly matters there too.

    Your excerpt is interesting. Of course, dialogue tags are unlikely to be needed in such a short duologue where the two women address each other by name.

  7. Many thanks. I am just wrapping up my first book, and I will go back in to it and strengthen my characters, per your suggestions. I find that I would rather write than read books. So sad that I got a late start…. I will be 77 this month.

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  9. Very useful suggestions.I will use all of them. I especially like your example showing how to write without using dialogue tags. It is very clear who is doing the talking. I also love to read and find that I enjoy a novel more when I can actually visualize the character, and of course, this is done through character development.

  10. Thank you for this post! Characters are one of the cornerstones of every great book, and your tips will surely help us writers to write really unforgettable characters. Which will make our book unforgettable, too. :)

  11. Thanks, I will try these suggestions. I usually write too black and white and need more colors so the characters will leap off the page..

  12. Just in time for NaNo ~ Defining the status of the character, that’s a new one for me, more depth to my character bible, I’m off to conduct some fresh character interviews. Thank you ^_^
    Write On!


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