You’ve heard writers and critics talk about a character being three-dimensional, but what does that really mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that you need to describe the back and sides of your character as fully as you describe their facial features. So let’s have a deeper look at what a fully rendered character really consists of.
One dimension of physicality
The physical aspects of a character are usually described “frame by frame”. Even if you have your character turning and you describe each side and different body part, the reader has to piece these descriptions together in order to get a view of the character – quite unlike a movie where the view is a two-dimensional whole.
Dimensions of emotional, mental, social, and meta-physical states
The character’s personality fits in here. What is his emotional reaction to different situations? What does he like and dislike?
How intelligent is your character? Is he a free-thinker, or does he rely on others to tell him what he should believe? How does he express himself? What concepts does he battle with? What does he find easy and enjoyable?
Who does he love or hate? Who are his friends? Why do other people like him, or not like him?
How does he respond to spirituality? Is he religious, or does the metaphysical world not feature in his thinking? Has he had a bad experience, or a good one?
Three dimensions of time – past, present, and future
A character who has a past is interesting. Even if their history never makes it into the story, develop it and understand how your character’s actions are based on his past experiences. When he does something, ask yourself why he’s acting or reacting in this way, and note down your response.
In the same way, your characters should have a future beyond the story. When the final page turns, what will they go on to do? Some of them may be dead, depending on your story, but how does that affect the other characters? How has your story changed them?
Dimension of plot
The final dimension to take into consideration is a circular one. In genre fiction, the plot should have an effect on at least the main protagonist, and the protagonist’s decisions and actions should affect the plot. The main character should go through a change between the beginning and end of the book.
How do the events of your story impact on the traits of your characters?
Is there any physical change? Has your character aged, been scarred, or crippled?
Is there an emotional or spiritual change, or a change in his state of mind? Has he lost or gained friends, betrayed, or been betrayed?
Has he discovered something he didn’t know about the past? How has his future been changed by the story?
It’s not necessary to develop your character fully before you start writing. In fact, it usually comes out more realistically if you allow your character to unfold to you gradually, and note down what you discover, rather than trying to fit him into a box.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in September 2006. © Elsa Neal
For more help on creating believable and interesting characters, try these books:
Characters and Viewpoint : Elements of Fiction Writing by Orson Scott Card
Dynamic Characters : How to Create Personalities That Keep Readers Captivated by Nancy Kress