Characters are arguably the most important aspect of any story, and they’re annoyingly easy to get wrong. Flat, uninteresting characters can ruin a book, no matter how great your plot is. Your readers aren’t going to feel fully immersed in the story if they’re seeing it though the eyes of a cardboard cutout. However, great characters will keep your readers invested in the story, and ensure it sticks with them long after the end. Few things in life are better than experiencing every joy and heartache with a well-written character.
Here are 11 things to think about when developing your characters.
- The basics. Character profiles are the best way to begin filling in the basics of who your character is. They cover things like physical description, home life, work life, beliefs, backgrounds. This character profile template from Reedsy is great. Once you have the basic details of your character down, you can really start to add the finer details which bring them to life. Remember that when assigning traits to your characters, you want them to mesh together. Our upbringing influences our personality, our environment impacts who we are as people. And please, I beg you, don’t make all your characters the same. People come in endless combinations of race, ethnicity, gender, body types, abilities, disabilities, personalities, etc. and your cast of characters should be no different.
- A goal. A character’s goal forms the basis of their story. This is particularly important for your main character as it will drive the narrative. Your character’s goal should come from the desire to improve their life in some way. Are they lonely and seeking companionship? Bored and craving adventure? What is holding them back from achieving that goal? What is their motivation? What is the catalyst that will push them towards pursuing it? That’s your story.
- Purpose. Every character in your story must serve a purpose. This is often easy to achieve with your protagonist, antagonist, and love interest, but what about the best friend? What about those random encounters with minor characters? If you have no idea why you wrote them, cut them. If the story would still pan out the same way without them, chuck them out. Save them for a story where they serve a purpose.
- Flaws. I will die on this hill. Flawed characters are the best characters. I wrote a post about this a year ago. I read so many books where the main character and the love interest are beautiful mannequins, and their biggest flaws are that they’re just too humble, or too selfless, or they just don’t realize that literally everyone they meet is instantly in love with them. NO! Give them a big nose, or crows feet around their eyes. Make their bodies soft, or angular, or give them a bad posture. Make them snap, and sulk and embarrass themselves in front of their love interest. I hate to break it to you, but your main character, no matter how strong or beautiful or wonderful they are, farts. You don’t have to show that, but we do need to feel like they’re a real person.
- A unique voice. It should be easy to identify which character is speaking in your story, even without dialogue tags. Give your characters a vocabulary. Do you have characters that swear a lot? Do they invoke deities in times of frustration or relief? Even something as simple as the word “Yes” could be “Yeah,” “aye,” “yep,” “affirmative,” “as you wish,” and so on. Each of those invokes a different voice, a different tone. A character’s vocabulary should fit in with their background, their upbringing, social status and how educated they are. If your character has received no education, hangs around with people of a similar social status and has never picked up a book in their life, then they are unlikely to have a large vocabulary. However, if your character has no formal education, but is an avid reader, then that would make sense for them to have a wider vocabulary than is expected of them.
- Conflicting traits. No one is pure good or pure evil. Even the most odious, cruel, malicious person will have some redeeming quality. Let us see it, even if just a glimpse. We need to see a shred of humanity in villains, and we need to see the threat of darkness in heroes. Everyone has differing opinions on morality, and not everyone will agree on everything. Make your characters disagree, give them a personal code of right and wrong, and have them question it now and again.
- Something to lose. They may believe they have nothing, but that’s rarely true. We all have something we care about; family, friends, pets, house plants, careers, talents, our senses, limbs, teeth. The threat of losing those things can be a powerful driving force for your characters, and a devastating turning point if they fail to save them.
- Failures and mistakes. No one has ever gone through life without making a single mistake. Make your characters suffer, have them run headlong into a trap, or choose the wrong path. Make them say the wrong thing and jeopardize relationships through their own foolishness. Have people be annoyed at them, or tell them they won’t follow them anymore. Readers love to see characters at their lowest, because it makes it all the more satisfying when they crawl out of that pit.
- Desires, interests and attractions. Not everyone feels physical desire for other people, but most people want something. Of course, there are big, important things like acceptance, friendship, adventure, knowledge, but often we see something we just have to have. Maybe your brave hero is also an artist, and when all this is over they just want to sit down with some oil paints and lose themselves in a new project? Perhaps your spaceship captain wants to bring about universal peace, and then take their navigator to get one of those golden glazed donuts they saw while fighting back the xenomorphs on B deck? Desires often lead to subplots, and help make our characters more human.
- An arc. Some of the most compelling stories are so impactful because of the character arcs. Sometimes that arc is transformative, taking the character from one end of a spectrum to the other (eg. a selfish character becomes selfless by the end of the story.) Other times the character matures, or has their perspective on the world altered, or the character realizes that they are the best person for the job from the beginning, and follows what is known as a “flat arc”. Their are stories, like Hamlet, which center around a declining or negative arc, where a character gradually fails and falls into tragedy. All of these have their merits, and all of them have their pit falls. A a writer you need to figure out your characters’ point A and point B, and fill in the line between those with story.
- A life beyond the story. Unless you’re writing a life story, your characters lives shouldn’t begin and end within the pages of your book. If we first meet your main character at the age of 21, then they need to have lived for those previous 21 years. They need to have experiences, memories, things they are embarrassed or proud of, regrets, fears, hobbies, phobias, loves, friendships, dreams and ambitions. If they survive til the end of the book, then we need to believe that they have a future. This is not to say that you need pages of exposition, recounting every memory and life experience of your characters, but they need to feel as though they belong in their world, and that they are “worn-in”. Let your characters draw from their own life experiences when searching for answers, let them form conclusions based on what they believe about their world.
I hope this helps. Thank you so much for reading.
2 thoughts on “How to write three-dimensional characters”
Thank you, this is actually really helpful. I found so much good advice on Twitter because of the #writingcommunity. I feel so much better prepared to work on my WIP. Well, on one of them. I haven’t figured out how to work on multiple ones yet…
This is useful information. You are offering professional advice for free. Your post reminds me of the many essential tips I learned while taking online screenwriting and novel writing courses given by professional writers at UCLA. And those courses were far from FREE. So thanks. (: