Do you fall in love with characters first, or the plot? Characterization has always been my favorite part of reading and writing. A great plot is dulled if I don’t care about the characters undergoing the plot’s hardships.
But what makes a phenomenal character like Hermione Granger or Atticus Finch? What does a writer pour into a character that causes you to carry that fictional person with you through life?
I propose there are three major elements: dimension, conflict, and empathy. In this post, I’m going to talk about dimension. That’s the term you’ll hear most frequently in critique groups, college creative writing courses, etc. “Your character needs more dimension.” “I love your heroine; she’s so three dimensional.”
To write dimensional characters, you must understand people. Plain and simple. Creating dimension means walking away from archetypes. It’s about making your character feel real. Real enough for your reader to want the protagonist as their best friend. Yes, you can use an archetype as your base, but no real person is just The Clown, The Princess, The Jock (think The Breakfast Club or The Cabin in the Woods).
So, how do you create dimensional characters in your writing?
1. Create a Complex List of Descriptors
One dimensional characters have a short list of complementary attributes. Flat protagonists are all good, and flat villains are all bad. Flat heroes are those that can only be described as good, kind, strong, and helpful. Generic enough for you?
Have you ever noticed that most of the time in sitcoms, especially teen sitcoms, that the main character is the most boring? The protagonist is set up as a bland “every man” and then surrounded with a vibrant cast of characters with unique attributes that make the main character even duller by comparison. Stop it! A character can be relatable without being vanilla and generic.
I’m not saying your protagonist shouldn’t be good, kind, strong, and helpful, but if those are the only things your reader can come up with when asked to describe your character, you’ve missed an opportunity.
Dive into your character’s life. You hold the pen. You can ink out a complex background, a unique quirk, a tragic motivation, etc.
Make a list. How do you want readers to define your characters? It doesn’t have to just be one-word descriptors (though thinking in those concise terms is highly beneficial). Draw off people you know. What are some complexities you admire in others? For example, I love that my husband is a quiet, shy person, but with me, he talks freely about anything and everything (You should hear some of the random questions I get. Like, “What would you do if I was a chicken?”), no filter. What are some complexities that bother you? For example, perhaps your character is an avid volunteer worker, but in the comfort of his own home, he’s an abuser.
Don’t be afraid to mix seemingly contrasting characteristics.
Take Celaena Sardothien from Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series. She’s a brutal assassin who’s also obsessed with high fashion and sweet confections. Most writers depict assassins, male or female, as stoic, tough, haunted, and reserved/disciplined. Celaena is volatile and downright girly, and she’s all the more interesting, and relatable, for it.
2. Consider Relationship Discrepancies
People are complex, and the face people present to the world is often different from the face they present to those closest to them.
Teens don’t talk to their parents the way they talk to their friends. They’ll use slang, have their own inside jokes, and speak freely about their daily activities and any rules they’ve broken. Teens often posture in front of their friends, while showing a more relaxed, truer version of themselves in the comfort of their own home. Heck, adults do that, too.
Actions and speech patterns in the workplace are different than at home or with friends.
Complex relationships breed tension and secrecy, or rage and passion.
You must ask, “Who is this character in _____ location, around _____ person, or when in _____ mood?”
Once you have your character’s main personality traits mapped out, make a new list. Write out the names of everyone that character will interact with. Now, describe how he/she talks, acts, feels around those people.
3. Map Out the Past
Where you come from shapes you. Your past experiences, the environment you grew up in, and the people you were close to as a child all influence your behavior. Your fictional characters should be no different.
Take the time to weave a background for all your major characters. Maybe the details will never enter the book (though in the case of the main protagonist, you’d be missing a huge plot opportunity if you never addressed the past), but regardless, they help form a dimensional character in your mind, which you can then interpret on paper.
I’m sure you’ve noticed it’s a popular trend to make a hero’s past traumatic in some way. A dead parent. A terrible accident that scarred them physically. Childhood neglect. You get the idea. There’s a reason for this stereotype. Pain is a strong motivator, and traumatic pain lingers. It shapes dramatically, and creates a more nuanced character in many cases. That trauma can also be a plot catalyst (Harry Potter, Star Wars, or The Lion King, anyone?).
BUT, don’t feel like you have to give your main character(s) a traumatic past. Don’t force one in. And if you do add trauma in your character background, it needs to heavily influence your character’s personality.
The main thing to keep in mind is that everyone has a past full of both good and bad memories. The bad memories don’t have to be extreme to impact the character’s life. And remember that good memories are just as important. Is your character very close with her mother? That’s probably because of wonderful past experiences they shared.
Good memories form relationships, while bad ones break them apart.
4. Likes and Dislikes
It’s the details that make a character come to life. Take the time to ask yourself what your character’s top 5 favorite and least favorite things are. If you want to get really in-depth (perhaps just for your key protagonist and antagonist), break it down into more specific categories, such as top 3 favorite and least favorite foods, locations, people, activities, etc.
If your reader shares a like or dislike with a character, that character is more likely to become dear to them. Even if there are no shared preferences, understanding those things about your character will make him/her feel more alive and individual to your readers.
Character motivations drive every great plot. If characters are simply dragged along for the ride through no real decisions or desires of their own, you have a flat cast of characters and a wasted and/or boring plot. The majority of plot points should not happen to your character, they should be acted out by the character or branch off from a past action of the character.
So, it is vital that once you have a character’s personality mapped out, you ask yourself these questions:
- What does this character want? (Consider all areas of the character’s life and map out what he/she wants in each one.)
- What does he/she fear? (I’m not talking a fear of spiders or pimples here; that should already exist in your character profile. I mean what would make this character feel like their life was unraveling.)
- What is he/she confused by? (Confusion says a lot about a character. It can reveal something he/she has not experienced, explain a deep-rooted fear, and cause major plot obstacles/developments.)
While I suggest asking these questions at the end of the process, motivation is so inherently connected to plot, you’ll need to have a general sense of where your plot is going and the specific traits and motivations he/she absolutely needs to navigate that plot. Plot and character can never be totally separated. I personally prefer starting with only a vague sense of plot and then moving on to in-depth character development before returning to plot. This is because I feel characters are what shapes and fully defines the plot. However, if you want, you can ask these three questions both at the beginning and end of your character creation process, and slip plot development in between.
Now that we’ve covered dimension, read about the second element of great characters—conflict—in Literary String Theory Part 2: Characters Collide.