Writing Three-Dimensional Characters
Designing characters is hard and there’s a bucket tonne of advice sprinkled across the Internet on how to master this part of your writing. I am about to add to it, but hopefully in a way that compacts it into an easy to remember essay.
Quite simply, the way to make a character seem three-dimensional is to add three dimensions to them.
The First Dimension: Personality
There are a startling number of characters in novels that seemingly do not carry themselves beyond a blank slate. The worst offenders for this are side characters, simply because they are not the protagonist or their antagonist or not their favourite. They’re there as a token or to fulfil a part of the plot and that is all they are. If this is how the author feels about them, then it will show in their writing.
Personality is constructed by many things such as culture, race, history and socio-economic background. How the personality is portrayed is in their actions and their own voice, either in dialogue or even when the narration follows them as a primary viewpoint character. You don’t necessarily have to go into full detail for a character that shows up in one scene, but to make them memorable, it will certainly help to have at least the voice clear.
For example, a character is trying to hide that he has injured himself when the protagonist arrives. They’re interrogating him because they need to know where someone is, and his behaviour is suspicious and they think he knows. He doesn’t, but he really doesn’t want to admit his injuries because of how he got them.
Why would he want to hide these injuries? Maybe he has bad history with the protagonist? Maybe it’s because he is worried that admitting he is hurt he will lose access to his children? How did he come to these injuries in a way that comes naturally to the kind of person he is? Is he a mechanic, a baker or a lawyer? Why would a lawyer be injured?
Does he have an accent? Does he get easily offended when he thinks people are judging him for it or is he proud? Is this his second language? Is he an veteran? How does this come across in the way he puts himself forward? Does he even try to put himself forward or is he meek and unassuming?
Let’s say he is a veteran, he’s been through the wars and he’s not ready to have some punk spin his life into some mess. He could:
a) Pretend he knows nothing and has no idea what anyone is talking about.
b) Try to be rude enough to turn the protagonist away but end up being leveraged in some way.
c) Uses some of his quick thinking to turn the situation into his advantage.
All of these are all equally interesting dynamics for your scene, and developing his personality would give a good indication of which one he is prepared to do. It would make sense.
This example also leads onto the next dimension…
The Second Dimension: Agenda
Everyone has an agenda. My partner is currently playing his guitar because he enjoys it and maybe he is bored. The veteran wants to be left alone, but this clashes with the protagonist. The protagonist and their best friend’s agendas go hand-in-hand, and so they are working together to inch out every bit of information they can from their unwilling acquaintance.
There’s a dynamic here. Which agenda is stronger? Does the veteran fear what will happen if he reveals his truth more than the protagonist wants this information? If so, then he wins this battle of willpower.
Say the protagonist needs to know and this is urgent. Desperation will sink in and out comes either blackmail or negotiation, or pleading. One of these will work on your veteran, because his agenda is weaker than the protagonist’s. Which of these will work will depend on the personality of the veteran, as well as do well to display the protagonist’s desire to get at what they want and what they’re willing to do to get it. Maybe they sacrifice something to gain the trust of the veteran or maybe they slip into a flaw they’ve been holding back, such as manipulation.
Knowing both personalities will help with this as well as the stakes of both agendas.
And this so helpfully leads onto the final dimension:
The Third Dimension: Presence
A character’s presence in some way can be held up by their agenda and personality, but what I want to get at are two things:
a) Are they forgettable?
b) What happens when you remove them?
Let’s say meeting the veteran happens in chapter 10, but he doesn’t get brought up again until chapter 30. I can almost guarantee that people will wonder “who was he again?” and flick back to see if they can remember. Something about this meeting needs to be important in some way to justify why it exists at all in your narrative.
As I said when I first introduced him as an example, his injuries aren’t related to the antagonist so the information he does or does not give will not be a direct link to the plot. No, this meeting is more about character development. It does mean it can be awfully easy to pluck him from the story and nothing major will change. Or will it?
Let’s say he offers a clue, unknowingly, in his information, but this clue came at a price that detrimentally affects the protagonist later on. Maybe it was something they needed to defeat the antagonist and now they have to work around this issue. They’ve lost something they’d thought was worthless and now they have to make a bigger sacrifice as a result.
Or the clue was a part of a puzzle and without it there would be no big picture later on. Maybe the protagonist learns to empathise with the veteran in their short, but important, conversation. Maybe they’ve never seen eye-to-eye, or maybe this is the first time the protagonist has met someone like the veteran and had pre-existing stereotypes they needed to break down. Maybe they recognise something in the veteran or later on they see a character that reminds them of him and they decided they need to do things differently.
There is a minor element I’ve missed out. What fills the space in which the Three-Dimensional Character takes? Consistency. It’s the backbone of any character and what makes them stand up on their own in a way that really helps the author. You can say “I know how he’ll react to this!” because you know them so well, rather than pushing them towards the narrative you want. This is why so many writers feel like the characters are talking to them or change directions.
We meet the protagonist at their base-point, the foundation of who they are going to become. We don’t get that with every other character. The veteran has already had his story or is in a different part of his development arc. Giving him a personality, an agenda and presence will demonstrate that he lived before your protagonist arrived to bother him, and will live afterwards
Sure, not every character is going to need to. stand-out. For example, a rich person’s maid may only be necessary to show just how rich they are. You can very easily remove a maid from the scene and simply refer to them by saying something throwaway like “I’ll get my maid to show you the way out.” It would also take a heck of a lot of time to go through every character to do this to (unless you’re looking for new procrastination ideas), but I’d highly recommend considering these three dimensions for any key character, major or minor.
I will, of course, be saying good luck.
And stay safe.
© 2020 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.