The secret to creating three-dimensional characters

The first step to character creation is research. You are not just creating a flat persona to fulfil a thingy that needs doing in your story, you are creating a person. As you are creating this person, you will get to know him in full detail. The reader will only see about 10% of him, the tip of the iceberg, but the writer should know him completely. Characters (and people) are defined by the ways they differ from each other, by how they handle their differences and approach their obstacles.

Research

General research is sneakily done every  moment a writer is alive. You notice people, how they behave, what they say and how they say it. How they move. How their lives intertwine. You can draw upon all this information as you are sketching out your character. This is where the phrase “write what you know” comes into play. You use all the knowledge you have gathered about people, humanity and psychology to create a general sketch of your new character. Next up, you need specific research for details that tell your character apart from anyone else. These are the things that make him unique (and hopefully interesting).

The stages of creating a character
  1. The first idea that kicks off the need to create a new character
  2. Sketching in broad strokes (general)
  3. Creating the core that shows character consistency
  4. Creating paradoxes that form complexity
  5. Adding emotion, attitude and values to round him
  6. Adding details that make him unique

Creating the personality

The environment he exists in

People are shaped by the place and society they grew up in, just as they are shaped by the genetics their parents gave them. They are in part, a product of their environment. Aspects of environment that have much influence on a person are the historical period they live in, the culture they grew up in, the location and the occupation. People have an educational background (even a lack of education counts), a religious background (again, a lack of religion also counts) and a social background. These influence not only how the character thinks and what he believes but also how he speaks. You should be able to tell apart people who are from different place, based on their dialogue. Sometimes writers create characters based on people they know in real life. This can be a good source of inspiration but make sure you are creating a character, not a copy of a person.

The physical body

When reading a book, readers project the “film” in their minds. They see the setting and the people do what they do. In order to picture the character, and thus bring him to life in their minds, they need something visual they can picture. Even if you don’t give a physical description, the reader will make something up that seems fitting to the personality they get to know. If you do give a physical description, be aware that readers will tie associations with these aspects to your character. In screenplays especially, it can be particularly strengthening if the character has something an actor can use, such as a particular walk or certain kind of hat. You can’t act being “pretty” or “ugly” but you can act walking with a limp.

Consistencies and paradoxes

Consistencies are the first thing that pops to mind when you think of a person. It is characteristically him. The paradoxes are the surprise elements you discover when you get to know them better. They may have interests that you wouldn’t expect, for example. These paradoxes make people more complex and sometimes unpredictable.

The core of the character (consistencies)

The need for consistency is not to be confused with predictability. It is their core personality, defining who they are and how they act. This is important for the believability of the persona you create. People behave according to the situation they find themselves in, their history, code of honor and ethics. A consistent core has qualities that implies other qualities. For example, a (paint) artist would probably be interested in art, color-psychology and so forth. A farmer probably knows a thing or two  about growing crop but also about reading weather.

The paradoxes

Though people have consistent traits, they are still surprising and unpredictable at times. Humans are, despite their excellent ability to reason, still illogical some of the time. These paradoxical sides of a person are the bits we get to know after spending considerable time with the person. They are the most interesting things about people and set them apart from others. They do not undermine the consistencies in people, they add to them.

Values, attitudes and emotions

These aspects deepen the character. Emotions (convey feelings) give emotional layering to a character, making him more rounded and deeper. Attitudes (convey opinion) shows the particular look the character has on the world, how he looks at life. Characters also have attitudes towards things and each other. Values express what people believe.

Everybody responds differently to the same situation. Emotion defines us. What we feel, what we have feelings for, who we love or hate, it defines us.

The tiny details

With emotions, attitudes and values, your character is multidimensional. With paradoxes, they are separated from the group. Now it’s time to make them original. These details set the character apart from those that look like him. Example: the women who wears the oddest earrings even during formal occasions. Details help make a person memorable and can be actions, speech, behaviors, gestures, how he laughs, anything and often stem from a person’s imperfections. Imperfections also make a person lovable.

The dark side

The dark side of people often stem from repressed desires, such as aggression or sexuality. The more denied it is, the stronger it gets. This drives people through their unconcious. You can use this even for healthy (“normal”) characters. Derive inspiration from clinical mental health problems such as paranoia or depression. Assign a few (only a few!) aspects to give characters aspects of a darker persona without making him mentally unhealthy.

Examples:

  • Schizofrenia –> me against the world attitude
  • Depression –> negative outlook on life (pessimistic)
  • Anxiety –> always worrying and being nervous
  • OCD –> tidy, perfectionistic
  • Compulsive liar –> trickster, con artist
To get started, write what you know. To be original, write who you are.

Creating the backstory

Backstories are interesting because there are usually interesting stories from a person’s past and they help understand why the person is the way he is. The backstory consists of trauma’s and crisis the person has overcome, the important people they have met in their lives, the positive/negative feedback they received throughout their life, their childhood dreams and influences from society/culture. It offers two types of information, information on crucial past events that have to be conveyed to the reader and information that the writer never shares with the reader. This second part belong to the part of the iceberg that is submerged.

Common aspects of backstory are:

  • heredity
  • social class
  • occupation
  • education
  • home-life
  • political views and affiliations
  • hobbies
  • interests
  • moral standards
  • ambitions
  • temperament
  • abilities

Simply filling in these information bits as if it’s a form is  not enough however. It is important to know what sort of occupation your character has but it’s more important to know how he feels about it. You need to learn what their embarrassing childhood moment was. What is the worst thing they’ve ever done and why do they consider that the worst. The way these events are internalized (e.g. repressed) determines the effect it has.

Once you have established the mountain of backstory, remember the reader will only see 10% of it. You need the full mountain to flesh out your character but your reader doesn’t need to be bored with entire life stories of every single character in your story and be distracted from the story that matters. Remember the iceberg and show the backstory a little at a time, preferably in short pieces of dialogue. Do not use flashbacks, monologues and exposition to show backstory if you can avoid it.

If a character goes through major changes, there often needs to be some backstory information to help clarify his actions and decision making. Life transition don’t pop out of of the blue. They come forth from the past. A child must overcome certain key issues in order to develop a healthy mental life and become a well-adjusted person. The first of these is trust, the ability to feel secure. Without this trust, children develop with a lack of confidence and self-esteem. The second is that of identity. Children who are constantly criticized are formed by what people think of them rather than who they are and what they think of themselves.

Relationships between characters

The main characters
The duo

Often, a partner is assigned to a character that will have good chemistry with that person. This couple have something in common that brings them together and keeps them together but there is also conflict between the two which threatens to pull them apart. They have contrasting qualities that strengthens them through opposition and they have the potential to transform each other (for better or worse). The contrast between the two is what defines duos best. It provides strong dynamics. Conflict stems from the contrast between two people as they may have different goals or methods. Eventually, the duo changes each other.

The trio

Adding a third person usually leads to one person needing to make a choice. Either it’s the lone female or the lone male that is eventually forced to choose between the two others on some level. Triangles work best when all three characters cause twists and turns for their own reasons. In the duo, there was one relationship where conflict would arise from. When you add a third, there are now three relationships which will have conflict on some level. When you think about it, they are actually six relationship because each person in each relationship experiences it in his own personal way.

(A --- B) & (A --- C) & (B --- C)

Each of these relationship show insecurities, imperfections, decision making and emotions of the characters involved. It is common for at least one of the three characters to be significantly more driven by his dark side than the other two. Even when showing all these aspects about the characters, parts will still always remain hidden. Two may keep a secret from one. One may keep a secret from two.

Supporting and minor characters

Supporting characters are famous for accidentally stealing the spotlight. This happens between they do not carry the burden of carrying the story forward, giving them more freedom than the main characters get. However, if you have a good supporting character, you should not shy away from using him for all he’s worth. Another danger lies in the excessive amounts of background characters. Carefully think about the function or role you need fulfilling and assign a character to that task. Scrap away characters that are interchangeable.

A good supporting character defines the role and is important to the protagonist somehow. His presence is important and his absence would alter the story. If you can leave out a character without it affecting the story, it is a background character (not support). Supporting characters help carry the theme of the story.

Using supporting/minor characters to add texture

As mentioned before, contrasting characters strengthen each other. This principle can still be applied in supporting characters (and minor characters) by contrasting them with the main characters but also with each other. A group of minor characters that have individuals that are not meant to stand out, such as a group of bodyguards, should be similar to each other.

 Creating the villain (and the antagonist)

The villain opposes the protagonist. This makes him the second most important character in the story. Villains are usually antagonists though not all antagonists are villains. Villains are evil, antagonists are opposition which can be neutral in alignment or even good. Antagonists do not need to be people, they are anything and anyone that stands in the way of the protagonist and his goal.

No one is a villain in his own eyes

Stories which feature a villain are often stories about good vs evil in which the protagonist fights for the good guys and the villain is evil. The biggest mistake made in stories is creating an action-driven villain which does lots of things to block the path of the protagonist, but without a good reason. These villains simply like to do evil things, so they do evil things, so they are evil. Ask how the villain became the way he is (backstory) and why he does what he does (personal goals). Round him with humanizing attributes such as love or fear. The round villain justifies everything he does.

Writing dialogue

A musician trains his ear to hear melodies and rhythms. A writer must train his ear to hear speech patterns.

Writing decent dialogue is doable for any intermediate writer, but writing great dialogue takes it above and beyond.

Good dialogue:
  • has a rhythm
  • is short and sparse
  • moves back and forth between characters
  • conveys conflict
  • conveys attitudes
  • conveys intentions
  • reveals the character
  • is easily spoken aloud (try it!)
Great dialogue:
  • every line reveals something about a character
  • every line has a distinct and recognizable voice
  • has conflict, attitudes, emotions
  • has the magic ingredient: subtext
Subtext

Subtext is what the characters say between the lines. It is the thing they say without actually saying it. People are rarely so direct to say exactly what they think. They do not always say exactly what they mean. Subtext is sensitive to the interpretation of the audience and can sometimes be overlooked. This is a risk of the trade.

Approaching dialogue writing

Several techniques can prepare you:

  • work out the story before writing any dialogue
  • analyze the subject
  • analyze the intention
  • develop an ear for real dialogue
  • translate real dialogue into fictional dialogue
  • read aloud what you wrote to check for authenticity on the sound

Seger, L. (1990) Creating unforgettable characters.
Cleaver, J. (2002) Immediate Fiction.