Writing Three-Dimensional Characters
By Ishita Shah, Julia Zacharski, Suhanee Mitragotri, and Pelumi Sholagbade
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the human species is the enormous potential for diversity among us. Some of us are go-getters who chase after our most quixotic ambitions with arms full of optimism and not a fingertip’s length of fear. Many of us are mischievous and clever, while others are more level headed and reserved. The spectrum of quirks and personality traits extends longer than life itself. And while there’s no formula that yields the ideal combination of qualities for any particular person, there is a certain distinction that each combination of traits produces within each of us - a distinction we refer to as uniqueness.
Each of us has that something––that flair, that tendency, that distinguishing factor, even that killer haircut––that transforms us from any regular person to a distinctive, one-of-a-kind human being. Most of us have many somethings. These attributes are what elevate us from a standard two-legged, two-armed creature to a colorful, distinguishable individual.
Writing a character is a challenge for any writer. To develop a character flavorful enough to stand out on paper as a living, breathing being is a perplexing task, even more so because of the vast number of possible routes a writer can take. To appeal to a reader, a character must not only possess an attractive personality but also jump out from the text as a relatable, understandable, and emotionally intelligent individual. Talk about a lot of pressure on someone who doesn’t actually exist!
The trick to writing characters that identify (and thus stick) with readers is to ensure that they are three-dimensional. Us humans are not defined by our surface-level traits; we are shaped by our upbringing, environment, experiences, and social circle. Our emotions are messy and complicated, and our decisions are often all over the place. Why? Because we aren’t perfect. Layers of conflicting thoughts and inexplicable habits help mold us into who we truly are. A character, therefore, cannot be constructed with just a few measly character traits. To resonate with readers, a character needs those same layers that fold into the shape of a human being. After all, a character is just a human themselves.
To aid in your development of a three-dimensional character, we’re going to piece apart these layers to examine what they really look like and what goes into them. We’ll answer one paramount question: What makes your character who they are?
The first layer: On the surface
This is the basic, create-your-own-personality-type phase of character development. Here is where you want to brainstorm what your character looks like on the outside, with regards to both physical appearance and personality at a glance. If someone interacted with your character for the first time, what would they see and think? In this initial stage, you want to first craft physical features. Stray away from relying solely on the basics like hair color, eye color, and skin tone; mix it up by throwing in some uncommonly mentioned characteristics (freckles, for example) and identifying marks (maybe your heroine has a heart-shaped birthmark on her left leg). Provide enough details for your readers to grasp a clear image in their head. Then, you can move on to surface-level personality traits: Are they outgoing? Nerdy? Lazy? Habits, quirks, commonly used phrases, and slang is key here as well. Begin by listing your ideal characteristics and then add quirks and hobbies to those until you have enough to build a believable personality.
The second layer: Inside their head
Now, we get a peek into the character’s mind. What are they thinking of? Who or what crosses their mind on a daily basis? Memories are essential here; you want to develop a foundation for your character, so introduce and highlight core memories throughout your writing to help readers gauge where your character comes from. These memories can also be used to explain why a character responds to certain stimuli in a specific way, and why they exhibit certain fears. Speaking of fears, this second layer is all about strengths and weaknesses, as well. What do they do best? Why are they afraid of something? You’re now beginning to introduce the qualities of your character that someone could not discern from a first glance. And by doing so, you aid readers in getting to know your character from a deeper level.
The third layer: A glimpse into their soul
Here, your character opens up their heart. What are their driving forces? What is of utter and absolute importance to them? While loved ones and role models are great to include, you must mention something even more weighty: values. An easy way to develop a character’s values is by listing each action and decision the character has taken and determining which key values could be the reason for them. If your character sees an old woman at the beach and smiles at her, what prompted her to do that? Kindness? Sympathy? From there, predict where these values come from (perhaps witnessing her grandmother succumb to cancer taught my character the value of appreciating those around her for as long as she has them). Describing trauma or early exposure to hardship or violence is an excellent way to do this––it gives readers a fuller understanding of what has shaped this character and will allow your character to come across as a changed and affected individual - one similar to a real person. Along with values come morals––what does your character deem acceptable, and for what reasons? You want to delve into the rationales behind your character’s courses of action. An important thing to remember here is to reveal these throughout your writing and do not explicitly define them. Morals and rationales should neither be addressed directly nor all at once; they should be divulged slowly and by the readers themselves through analysis of each action, which YOU as the writer must craft to reflect these morals. And lastly, identify your character’s deepest desires and motivations—ideas that are shameful, scandalous, or even evil.
Clearly, there is a lot to think about when creating a three-dimensional character beyond their wavy hair or long eyelashes. You may be thinking: Where do I start? Building these levels to a character is a difficult process that requires immense patience. However, we have some specific tips to provide you with detailed advice on how to build these dimensions in your character.
Tips for writing a robust character
They must grow
Dynamicity is one of the best ways to build a multi-dimensional character. You want your character to change throughout your piece, whether it’s for the better or worse. You want them to learn and change as their environment changes. After all, we as humans are greatly shaped by the interactions we have with our environment, most particularly with people. Maybe it’s the poor influence a friend had on a character’s choices in middle school. Maybe it’s the mentor who saw potential in a child who otherwise felt dejected and helped the character succeed. Think about how people and places have shaped you throughout your life. Use those ideas to develop your character and their growth.
Let your character surprise you (& your readers)
Create an unpredictable character. The last thing you want is the reader to know the ending of the piece after the first few lines. It doesn’t have to be a jump scare or make the reader fall out of their chair, but you want to have unexpected aspects in your piece. Maybe this is your character trying or saying something unexpected. Maybe it is the unusual way your character reacts to a particular experience. You want to languish in the unexpected and create surprises that make the experience more enjoyable for the reader, but also for you as you write.
Utilize conflicting emotions
Many of our decisions and motivations in real life are not clear cut. We weigh the pros and cons and often experience moral dilemmas. Sure, we are happy for a teammate that made the varsity basketball team this year, but our happiness arrives with that inevitable twang of jealousy, too. Make sure your character experiences such internal conflicts and reaches these emotional crossroads. This can make your piece much more realistic. We all go through personal conflicts. Which one should I choose? What did he mean when he said that? We worry and we think because we are humans. And so are your characters. Whether it is the internal conflict of the character asking their crush to prom or of deciding where to go to college, you want to make sure you show your characters experiencing those conflicting emotions.
Choose traits carefully
Traits are one of the most important aspects of your character, just as they are with humans. Using appealing traits can make your character more likable and bring a more enjoyable read. These traits are not limited to typical positive characteristics: bravery, courage, etc. In fact, negative traits like stubbornness or a smart-mouth often make for a more juicy read (think Katniss Everdeen). And a trait that may appear negative at first glance can help make your character more dynamic. For example, rather than making a character rude, you can portray them as witty and expressive. Clinginess can be turned into determination; conceitedness into confidence. Your character can be much more unique and relatable to readers with such traits. Rather than focusing on the negative parts of them, make these traits appealing to the reader.
Show, don’t tell
Most writers have heard this tip countless times, and for good reason. When introducing a character to a reader, you want to lead into their personality, rather than laying it right out. A character’s personality is best revealed through their actions and words. As your character deals with events and makes decisions, their traits and personality will be unveiled. Maybe your character is under a situation of extreme pressure but handles it calmly and confidently. Maybe they get angry and stand up for themselves in an argument. Use scenarios that show who the character is, whether it is through their actions, words, or feelings in response to something.
Words, words, words! Dialogue is an excellent way of showing a character’s thoughts and emotions rather than stating them. Personality is often revealed through our conversations with other people; use this to your advantage when creating your character.
Humans are vulnerable and flawed. Thus, people are much more likely to relate to a character with shortcomings and imperfections. Everyone has weaknesses; they make us human. A character with believable and well-founded weaknesses that are compatible with their character will connect with readers. Don’t be afraid to let your character spiral a little.
The emotions must be sincere
Rookie mistake: Making your character’s emotions too superficial or extreme. Characters should respond to stimuli appropriately and within the bounds of their personality, but should not overdo or underdo it. A character shouldn’t choke up at the sight of a seahorse washed up on the sand and go on a four-page tirade on the peculiar timing of tragedy unless the situation really connects to the character’s background or was seen as a sign of something relevant to the character’s conflict. When generating emotions, think: Would I ever feel or respond this way in real life?
By incorporating each of these layers and creases, you will have yourself a conceivable, consummate literary character. A three-dimensional character will resonate with readers for years to come and will be noted for its complex development and unmistakable flair. At the end of the creative process, you’ll know this character like you met them last year.
Ready to create a character of your own? Welcome to the build-a-man workshop - we can’t wait to see your character come to life!
Ishita Shah is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Julia Zacharski is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Suhanee Mitragotri is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Pelumi Sholagbade is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.