Eight Ways to Create Three-Dimensional Characters

One of the keys to a great novel, play, or screenplay is in its characters. When readers can empathize with your characters and imagine themselves walking in their shoes, your story will resonate with them more than if they view your characters as flat and uninteresting, without motivation or depth. For this reason, it’s important to take the time to create rounded three-dimensional characters that your readers will want to spend time with again and again. Here are eight ways you can make that happen!

Design their backstory

Backstories can come in all shapes and sizes, but you’ll want to develop some sort of origin story for your character. How did they get from there (wherever there is) to here? Answering that question will help you understand who your character is at their core. Write down everything you know about them, including physical traits, personality quirks, and any special skills they might have. Your characters might feel real enough as soon as you write their name on a piece of paper, but it doesn’t hurt to fill out their background details a little more before putting pen to paper again.

Give them a few goals

One of your character’s biggest challenges will be achieving a few goals in order to move on in life. It could be as simple as raising his or her GPA, winning over a love interest, and saving enough money for a down payment on a house. Make sure your character has specific goals and wants or needs so that you can track their growth and development throughout your story. For example, if it’s one thing your main character would like, that would make it easier for you—and your readers—to cheer him/her on when they achieve said goal later in the story. While you don’t need a large number of goals for each character, three solid ones should suffice.

Give them real flaws

Your protagonist isn’t perfect; nobody is. It's not realistic, it's boring. Make sure your characters have real flaws, ones that will make them relatable and prevent readers from seeing them as superheroes. A good flaw can also serve as a source of tension for your story—it’s always better when something is at stake, even if that something is one of your characters' personality traits.

Give them realistic strengths

Every character has unique strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. However, in our rush to portray characters as well-rounded, we sometimes give them unrealistically high levels of skill. Just like in real life, characters shouldn't be all things at once. In fiction writing, it's important for each character to have a unique role within their world. A jack of all trades personality might seem realistic but it will also make your story predictable and less engaging. Make sure that each of your characters has at least one aspect about them that makes them stand out from others.

Make them relatable, but not perfect

As humans, we often gravitate toward protagonists who remind us of ourselves—and when you're writing a story, there's nothing wrong with that. But it's also important not to make your characters one-dimensional stereotypes. Think about what makes a person human: emotions, dreams, struggles, flaws, and shortcomings. Think about how readers feel when they read Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen—it's because they can relate to them even if those characters are in completely different worlds from their own. Without relatable characters, your story will lose traction with readers and won't have much emotional impact.

Avoid stereotypes when writing your characters

Stereotypes are usually what we think of when we think about flat characters. There’s nothing wrong with making a stereotyped part of your character’s personality, but it’s important that you don’t simply leave it at that and stop there. Otherwise, you end up with an essentially two-dimensional character who doesn’t seem real enough for your readers to care about him or her. Make sure that your characters have distinguishing qualities, and make sure they change in a realistic way throughout your story so they come across as dynamic. To help with their development, ask yourself questions such as: Who am I? Why do I act as I do? Where am I going? What is my goal in life? What makes me feel good about myself?

Be consistent with your characters

The easiest way to make your characters feel three-dimensional is through consistency. Make sure that, in every scene or page, your character has a consistent personality, motivation, and thought process. Do not switch these things up from one page or scene to another. If you’re writing a mystery novel and your main character is introduced as thoughtful and contemplative with a love of music, do not have him burst into song on page 10 if he has been serious and quiet in all previous scenes—unless there is a good reason for it. No matter what kind of story you are telling, be sure that the characters' personalities remain true throughout. This will help readers identify and relate with them more easily than if they behave inconsistently.

Let your reader connect with your characters

People want to read about people. If your characters are one-dimensional, it’s going to be hard for readers to feel any sort of attachment or affinity for them. Even if you’re writing an action thriller and that character is supposed to be a cold-blooded killer, give them some humanity and allow readers a chance to relate with them on some level. People want connection; people want empathy; so give your characters some dimensions (and let your readers see themselves in your characters) or risk losing their interest very quickly.

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