How to Write Three-dimensional Characters
If you’re writing a memoir or a novel, one of the most important elements will be crafting three-dimensional characters. When done correctly, readers will be drawn to the people in your book. They will empathize and relate to each person and even be sad when the story is finished.
If you’re a writer, you probably recognize how important research is to writing. When you sit down to write a novel, or write your memoirs, you need to do a little homework. After all, you must know about the environment and various topics discussed in your book. These are crucial to creating a realistic setting and background.
However, what you might not realize is that you also need to research the personalities involved if you wish to create truly three-dimensional characters. Yes, even if the book is a work of fiction, you must buckle down and do your research. Why? Because you should really know and understand the nuances and characteristics of each person in your novel before you can write about them. You have to work out how each person will develop throughout the story and who they will become by the end. And that development needs to resonate with your readers.
Keep it real
Meeting a character in a novel is a bit like meeting someone for the first time in life. It’s probably more like a good blind date, right? Think about it. When you first get to know a new person and hit it off, you see them in a certain light, one that is a tad rosy. That person can appear to be almost perfect.
Someone new in your life will go out of his or her way not to display negative emotions. No angry outbursts, no overly dramatic scenes, no whiney arguments. That’s because he or she isn’t comfortable enough to let you know that flaw exists in case that causes you to bolt.
No, your new acquaintance will be perfection personified, using only the best manners when they are around you.
However, if you continue to develop a relationship with that man or woman, you’ll start to see a few faults peek out. Buttons pop up. Stephen might be super polite, but when faced with any sort of emergency, he falls apart. Georgia might never swear, but when she finds a cockroach in her food, she will curse like a sailor.
Why am I mentioning this? It’s because if you want to create realistic people for your book, you must write as if you’ve known them for years. Skip the honeymoon phase. It’s overrated. Jump to the real person, the real Stephen or Georgia. Let’s fast forward a bit and let them reveal their idiosyncrasies
That’s how you create truly three-dimensional characters.
Trust me, no one enjoys reading about flat, boring “perfect” people. Would you? No. Your readers expect and demand that you to write as if the person really existed in our world. Bad guys aren’t always bad, and good guys are rarely saints. People have a lot of gray areas. Give them balance.
Communicate with dialogue
Communication is an integral part of life. It’s a bit like breathing when it comes to interactions between two people. After all, silence is usually death in a marriage, right?
Communication is also a bit like a signature for some people—even with your eyes closed, you can sometimes pick out who said what just by the way they speak. Certain phrases are said in a particular way. Think of the people in your life that you know really well. Don’t they have catch phrases or ways of mispronouncing words that are endearing?
Heck, some of my friends make up words on a regular basis. Looking it over, there are so many different ways to put words together in order to communicate an idea. That’s partly what makes us unique three-dimensional characters in life.
Through great dialogue in a book, you can really get a feel for a character’s personality. When it’s done well, you can almost hear the people speaking out loud. That’s the point when a reader gets lost in the pages of a good book. Have you ever read a passage and actually forgotten that you were reading? I know I have.
As a reader, I find it very easy to lose myself in the story when the words just flow from character to character. Personally, I’ve always loved dialogue-driven books.
As a writer, when I’m in the zone, when I know and understand my characters, it feels like I’m a fly on the wall. I’m there, just listening in to the conversation. They speak, I write. I’m just basically a stenographer. It’s that simple and that easy.
Three-dimensional characters have a unique style
As I mentioned, people tend to speak in a certain way. They have expressions that are unique to them. Some writers refer to them as “verbal tics.” A disgruntled teen might slap a parent with “Whatever!” on occasion. And someone who is extremely polite might call strangers “sir” all the time. It sets them apart. I have a friend who punctuates statements with a “BAM!” I don’t know anyone else who does that.
A character’s communication style may also be influenced by the specific geographical location from which he hails. He might have distinctive expressions that set him apart from other characters. For instance, someone from Minnesota might tack on “eh” to a statement to turn it into a question, eh? Or someone from the south might regularly use the second person plural pronoun of “You-all.”
Honestly, I love creating these phrases for my characters. It’s an excellent way to reveal some aspect of their personalities.
Create bonds between characters
In the real world, when two close friends get together, their exchange can take on a life of its own. Someone on the outside might have trouble translating all the idioms and inside jokes the two friends have created together over the years. For instance, when I visit my friend in Massachusetts and I’m losing at a board game, I’ll accuse her of punching me in the stomach. And then she’ll call me a carpet bagger. After thirty years of visits, I can’t even recall the reasoning behind these phrases anymore, but I’m sure when I see her next we’ll use these phrases in our banter. It’s just how we interact.
As a writer, it’s your job (and pleasure) to create that realistic dialogue between close friends. Now, it’s important not to lose your readers. They have to be in on the inside jokes. They must understand your characters well enough to understand the snippets of snappy dialogue you provide.
Sometimes you’ll need to use slang terms from another country to make it more believable. For instance, if your character is German, he might say “Gesundheit!” (meaning “good health”) instead of “God bless you!” when someone sneezes. Or if you’re creating another world for a science fiction novel, you might need to develop new words so that the reader becomes immersed in your book’s universe.
One of the best examples of this was when the characters in Battlestar Galactica used “frak” to communicate a popular swear word. It’s brilliant, because we all understood what they meant, but it helped the viewers know they weren’t in Kansas anymore (not even close). The writers introduced us to a new word, and it has become part of our culture. And yes, most schools forbid its use as they would any other swear word.
Mannerisms speak volumes
We all have our own mannerisms that help to define us. For instance, when someone raises an eyebrow, we know he is a bit skeptical of the previous statement made. We all know what that look means.
When building a character for your book, consider creating mannerisms that make him uniquely him. For example, I knew a Grandmaster of chess who would tap his head with all five fingers when he was deep in thought. I doubt he knew he was doing it, but it was a signature move. If you saw his bowed head and drumming fingers, you’d instantly recognize it was him.
If you’re writing a book and get stuck for ideas, go out and look around. Go to a crowded place, maybe a mall or a party, and observe what people are doing. Take notes and find a way to use that information. It will help you create more distinctive characters.
Draw from life
The best way to write detailed actions, descriptions and dialogue for a character is to live your life. Look around and notice how people behave. Take notes. I mean, literally take notes! You may want to carry a notepad with you wherever you go, so that you can jot down observations. You can also get an app for your phone that allows you to take notes.
It’s fascinating how people will put together a phrase or what they do when they think no one is looking. Also, notice how people interact, especially when they know each other well. Often, they will shorten phrases that everyone knows. “I guess I could do that” becomes, “I guess.” Or “Would you like to come with us?” turns into, “Wanna come?” The average person usually doesn’t speak the Queen’s English, so your characters should avoid intense formality, too (unless it is appropriate for their personality).
Keep in mind that there are a lot of silent communications as well. “Please pass the salt” is sometimes replaced with a nod of a head toward the saltshaker. John Cleese once commented that in England everyone always apologizes for everything. If someone wants the salt, Mr. Cleese pointed out that she will tend to nod toward the shaker and say, “Sorry?” I laughed when he said that, but it’s true!
Honestly, creating realistic personas is one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing for me. It is a bit like getting to know a group of cool people, except you are the one who will give them form and life. I encourage you to take your time and relish the experience.
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