Three Dimensional Characters

As writers, we want characters to feel real. We try to infuse them with real qualities, quirks and a sense of humanity that makes them leap off the page.  I say, try, because it's not always easy to create three dimensional characters.

Recently, I've tried to think about characters in three dimensions: the physical, the situational and the spiritual. At some point in the writing or revision process, I need to understand my characters from the inside out, and some aspect of all three dimensions has to appear on the page, although the degree to which it appears will vary depending on the role of the character in the story. 

THE PHYSICAL:  This category includes the character's appearance, but it is much more than just a rote recital of physical characteristics.  The character's size, shape and level of physical endurance will impact how the character interacts with other people and reacts to a particular situation.  A very tall character may use their size to intimidate, be self-conscious about their size, avoiding high heels and slouching, or may be completely comfortable in their skin.  An athletic character will react differently than a character who is uncoordinated and out of shape.  The character's hair, make-up and fashion choices come with their own sets of assumptions and can dictate how others react to the character.  Does the character fit the stereotypes of their fashion choices, or do they surprise in some way. Mannerisms, nervous habits, and unique aspects of a character's physicality can be used to create unique characters.  Comedians are especially good at using physicality to create characters.  Think about the Saturday Night Live impersonations, which are often based on certain physical cues and verbal tics that are readily recognizable.  While you don't necessarily want to take these traits to such a broad extreme, recognizing those aspects of physicality which make a person unique, can help inform your character development.  Physical aspects of romance and sexuality would also fall within this dimension. 

THE SITUATIONAL:  This is the place where the character's history and present intersect.  The character's living environment, family, wealth, and availability of opportunities factor here, as well as
important life experiences that have left their mark.  Is the character from a rural area, the suburbs, a small blue-collar town, a college town, a vacation town or a big city?  What kind of family does the character have, and how does he interact with family members?  Has the character had experiences that influence how the character views the world?  What does the character love about their life?  What do they wish was different?  Every person has their own history, full of unique relationships, experiences and opportunities (or lack thereof).  The situational aspect of the character is the world they find themselves in because of everything that's happened to them so far- but a person can't have a history without being affected and shaped by it somehow.  Every character's situation is going to be unique to them- but more importantly, every character should have a unique reaction to any given situation, which is where the next dimension comes in.  The situational drives the external forces in the narrative in addition to informing the character's choices.

THE SPIRITUAL:  I like to think of this dimension as the character's innermost desires and emotional reactions to the situational and the physical.  Does the girl who was raised on a farm that's been in her family for four generations feel an abiding loyalty and sense of belonging with the land?  Does she long to break away, even if it means hurting her family? Does she feel trapped and isolated or self-sufficient and completely free?  What does the character want?  How does the character feel about friends, family or love?  Is the character competitive or passive?  Does he want to change any aspect of his life or does he want to avoid change at all costs?  The internal factors, fears, desires and longing inform the character's choices and drive the internal arc of the narrative.

Now comes the fun part, using all three aspects to inform each other.  What activities does your character love?   A character might be a dancer, and his physical attributes, situation and attitude could all be limitations or assets.  The type of dancing a character chooses could be influenced by past experiences, environment, desire or physicality.  Include a few surprising details.  An overweight boy could get involved in ballet or a lawyer could take up hip hop to relieve stress.  A character with limited financial resources might work two jobs to pay for lessons, or teach classes or be self-taught.  What a character gets out of dancing will depend on what the character wants and how they feel about it.  Does the character feel pressure to perform,  and if so, does it come from herself or from other, external factors?  


What a great summary! I find the spiritual response to the first two the most interesting aspect of character. Two people can have the same experience, yet react in such very different ways. Why? That's when I get hooked!

I agree- it's the unique way a character reacts to things, their unique world view, desires and fears that make a character interesting and human. Without those, characters are just props being moved around to advance a plot, and a reader will notice.

Great ideas about how to see all facets of a character!

Or a lawyer might learn the Thriller dance :).

That would never happen...

Once a year, for Halloween. He does it because his children make him. Now we're getting a picture of a character. :)

So many awesome questions posed here, Talia! Especially love this point you made: "The internal factors, fears, desires and longing inform the character's choices and drive the internal arc of the narrative."

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