Characters: Now in 3D

As part of my continuing series following on my tongue-in-cheek Twelve Rules of Writing post, today we are discussing characters. First, though, let me remind you of Rule  4:

4. Characters must be three dimensional

Creating characters is difficult enough, but you must also make them three dimensional by describing them in excruciating detail. In order for your readers to be able to picture your character in 3D, they must know what underwear they have chosen and whether they floss their teeth.  It may help if you can get your readers to wear those cardboard spectacles with red and green filters.

This is one of the most cryptic pieces of advice to new writers – Make your characters three dimensional – make them stand out! It made my comment about the red and green glasses all the more poignant until my son reminded me that it was all done with polarized light these days. Writing advice like this is not very helpful unless you already know what three-dimensional characters are supposed to be, in which case you probably don’t need the advice. So what do we mean?

The reference to three dimensions really comes from the third dimension – remember in school we had (1) length, (2) height and (3) depth, and depth is what we’re looking for here. It helps to look at synonyms and antonyms:

~ Synonyms – complex, intense, profound
~ Antonyms – shallow, facile, superficial

Be aware that we are not talking about deep or shallow people as characters – it’s perfectly possible to have a shallow, superficially person as a character, represented in a way that would give them depth – someone profoundly shallow. It’s the way they are portrayed that is key to the depth of a character.

What can you do, then, to give your characters depth? Here are some suggestions:

  • Find out what drives your characters. When you are writing a character, a key question is to know what they want, and what they will do to get it. Make sure they want something, even if it’s to be left alone. If they don’t want anything, why are they in the story?
  • Give them an outlook on life. Are they a pessimist or an optimist? Are they confrontational or withdrawn? Do they have an attitude problem or are they a shrinking violet? Crucially, how do they deal with conflict? We all know people who deal with opposition in very different ways, and conflict is crucial to stories.
  • Once you have outlook and motivation, think about what made them that way. What happened to them in their life that colours their decisions and guides their actions? What’s their story, and how does that colour their responses.

The temptation will be to include this material in your story, after all, you spent time and energy coming up with it, so why not use it? The danger here is that you get side-tracked into back story and lose the thread of the narrative exploring character background. The back-story can be revealed, but only when it is relevant and timely to the story.

Notice that I haven’t mentioned what the character looks like. My comment about describing characters in excruciating detail in Rule 4 refers to appearance, not substance. When we talk about shallow, superficial characters, we’re talking about appearances, and as we all know these are misleading. In fact they’re a great opportunity for an author to play with pre-conceptions, setting expectations only to twist them later to reveal something new and interesting.

Now that you know the character as a person, it’s time to introduce another dimension – time. The one thing that will define a character more than anything else is the decisions they make over time. Ultimately it’s not what we say that matters, but what we do, and by presenting characters with a dilemma and forcing them to make a choice, we see what kind of person they really are. When those decisions are profound, we gain insight into the depth of that character.

That allow us to explore their reaction in three critical ways:

  • How do they react physically: Do they start shaking, screaming, fighting, hiding, running..?
  • How do they react emotionally: Are they happy, sad, afraid, bewildered, resentful, amused..?
  • How do they react spiritually: Are they changed? Have their values shifted? Is this a crisis of belief? Is it a moral choice..?

The other aspect of this is that when the dilemma is decided it must ring true for that character in that circumstance at that time. If the reaction is out of character then the reader will not accept it and the character will appear random or unpredictable – revealing little but the surface. So the development of the character over time through the story must support the dilemma that the character must eventually face and lead the reader to understand that the decision is neither straight-forward or simple, making the decision valid and understandable, even if it’s the ‘wrong’ decision.

A character faced with a true dilemma making a genuine choice reveals depth – whether we agree with the decision or not, we know them better as a person and that’s what it takes to bring a character into 3D.

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