How to Develop Three-Dimensional Characters

21 Mar
Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

In your mind, you can picture your characters clearly. You know how each one differs from the next and exactly what you want them to do or say. How will you convey that on the page? By using detail, detail, and more detail.

I have edited more than six dozen full-length manuscripts and at least two-thirds have been fiction. More often than not, character development is lacking. Consequently, I recommend that people think of their book as a movie; now describe that movie to someone who is blind. The readers of your book do not have ESP. They can’t telepathically tap into your head to know what you have in mind for your characters. Spell it out as though you were telling the story to a ten-year-old.

Start with a specific physical description of each character.
It doesn’t have to be long and it doesn’t have to occur when you introduce the character; however, we shouldn’t get to the end of the book and discover that your protagonist has a purple birthmark on his face, or is six foot seven and came from the planet Krypton, unless you were trying to surprise us.

Be sure your description is not generic.
Don’t describe a potential romantic interest as “tall, dark and lanky.” Pretend you’re reciting his attributes to a police officer who’s looking for a burglar. Every trait is important, particularly the ones that will make him unique. Brown hair or blue eyes are mundane. A nose ring or a skeletal tattoo is not. Give your characters a goatee, holes in their jeans, stiletto high heels, platinum hair, a vaccination pockmark or a military crew cut. Do anything to make them different.

Detail, detail and more detail
After you have created a strong visual image of your characters, devise a separate page where you can write down all the qualities each one of them has. This can be a biography of sorts. What kind of music do they like? What’s their favorite food? Where were they born and how do they like to spend their spare time? Once you have a bio on each one, add this information into various parts in the book. Don’t put it in all at once. Maybe in the beginning of the short story or manuscript your twenty-three-year-old graduate student is listening to the song “How to Save a Life” by The Fray on her iPod while she is waiting for a bus. Later on, she and her friend are munching on Chinese take-in. You know she’ll like General Tso’s chicken and her ideal vacation is skiing in Vail, because you have it in her bio.

How do your characters react emotionally?
Are they easily angered or unflappable? Are they sentimental and romantic? Or bitter because they’ve been burned? Put this in the bio. Maria’s parents had an ugly divorce when she was young. She has trust issues and tends to be serious. Something has to be hilarious for Maria to laugh out loud and she’s not keen on hugging people, especially strangers. Maria is dating online and she’s yearning to meet a soul mate. That means she would be easy prey if you want to introduce her to an unsavory cad, or she could be completely transformed and become vibrant and lively if she meets a great guy with whom she feels safe.

Expound on the emotional state of your characters.
They will have a basic everyday makeup but then they’ll react differently to certain situations. By telling your reader how your characters feel you’re making them three-dimensional and identifiable. If you want us to love or hate your hero, start by telling us how he feels and why.

Then move on to what your characters believe.
What are their ethical and political philosophies? What motivates their actions? Give us enough information so we come to know and care about your fictional creations.

Lastly, there is nothing intriguing about a character who is too perfect. Josa Young, author of One Apple Tasted, claims that her hero is “beautiful, certainly (at least to begin with), and funny, but he is deeply flawed. Spoilt and indulged, he has no idea of what women are thinking or feeling and is as hormone-driven and indiscriminate as young men I knew.”

Just as there can be no story without some sort of conflict or dilemma, truly fascinating and realistic characters are imperfect. They don’t have to be criminal or callous, but do strive to give them some less than admirable traits.

Sigrid Macdonald is a book coach, an editor, and the author of three books including Be Your Own Editor. Read her writing tips at


Hyper Smash

Leave a comment

Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Writing


Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: