How to write realistic, three dimensional characters

This is a little piece I prepared for a local writing group I attend regularly, part of a workshop about the subject of writing three dimensional characters. I hope people find it useful 🙂

How to write realistic, three-dimensional characters

So, how does one go about writing their characters as three-dimensional and realistic? You could have the greatest idea for a story ever, an epic so amazing and sprawling that it makes Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter seem piddling in comparison; but this could all fall flat if your characterisation skills are not up to snuff. This is ultimately what makes a story engaging and a real ‘page-turner’ – the characters themselves. As American science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury quite rightly says, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations”. [1]

As you are creating them through the medium of the written word, it can indeed be quite tricky to create a believable and relatable character – you have no actor or actress to bring them to life (unless you really hit it big and get approached by Hollywood to make a movie adaptation), so it falls upon you as a writer to use your skills to make them come alive on the page, and become more than just a faceless gathering of words.
One way of ensuring your characters are realistic is by quite literally basing them on real people – or an amalgamation of people you know. In truth, all characters (in any medium) are most likely written this way – no character is created in a vacuum. It may seem like cheating, but by doing this you are already creating a believable, living, breathing person who inhabits this little universe you are creating. This should set the gears in motion, as you will be asking yourself things like, “How would X react in this situation?”, or, “What would Y say to that?” – these are the questions that should always be in a writer’s head as they craft their stories. Different characters’ personalities can be built from this approach too- without even realising at first, in my own novel it became apparent that the various major characters all represented different aspects and traits of myself – I had split all these sides of my own mind and crafted characters from each one, and probably combined some with other people from my life too. Experience and observation are two of a writer’s most useful tools.
In short, you really need to get inside your own character’s head – the author should ‘know’ them best, after all. If it helps you, you should by no means feel silly in actually sitting down and writing an abbreviated life story for them. Just like in real life, people are shaped by their experiences; both good and bad, they have made us into the people we are today. But at the same time, it is quite important to not bare all straight away – details about the characters should be divulged organically and naturally as part of the story. For example, they should not simply blurt out their life story, or suddenly start whimpering about some traumatic experience of theirs – as a writer you need to show, not tell. The reader should find out about the character gradually – there should always be a little mystery to keep your reader interested and want to keep reading on. Using the flashback device in your storytelling could be an ideal way of doing this – we are introduced to the character in the present, and then intermittent cuts to past events explain why they are the way they are, or why the act a certain way around another character, etc.

Margaret Atwood

This in turn fleshes out your character and builds up their realistic depiction. Generally, readers will relate more to characters who have a checkered, murky past – a few skeletons in their closet. They should always have flaws and weaknesses. As Canadian author Margaret Atwood bluntly says, “Create a flawless character and you create an insufferable one”. Indeed, who would want to read about someone so irritatingly perfect? (unless they are a ‘love to hate’ antagonist or foil to your main character perhaps). Even if your story does have ‘villains’, a writer should not fall into the trap of simply having ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters. As Atwood continues, “Novels are not primarily moral tracts. Their characters are not all models of good behaviour – or if they are, we probably wouldn’t read them”. [2]

Even the most despicable characters should have a motivation or pathos that the reader can somehow relate to. Or, if it is a character seeking to better themselves, or redeem past mistakes, then their eventual redemption is all the more satisfying to the reader if the writer has developed them well. It is all about the journey, as well as the obstacles and adversaries they must overcome along the way. Indeed, television writer Joss Whedon believes that “You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are”. [3]

Lost (2004-2010)

Speaking of a medium besides the written word, one television show that perhaps demonstrates this sentiment particularly well is Lost. While the plot itself arguably became a confusing, complex mess, the characters themselves were so well written and developed through the hardships they endured both on and off the Island – in itself ultimately little more than a metaphor for redemption and the concept of starting anew with a ‘clean slate’ – that it still proved to be an engaging piece of storytelling, showing the importance of good characterisation in any form of writing.
So yes, making your characters sympathetic is important. I hope that I succeeded in doing this in my piece from the perspective of Joey Essex – who is indeed, someone I hate. (this to come in a future post!) But once I got myself into his head, so to speak, and considered how he might feel, I suddenly found myself constructing him into a rounded, sympathetic character – partly because of his flaws, but also equally by showing how judgemental and unforgiving the world around him can be.
I’ve mainly talked about the psychological aspects of creating realistic characters, but the aesthetics are important too – or rather, how they are described through the written word. Their appearance can say a lot about who they are – i.e. their clothes, hairstyle, tattoos, body language etc. The way they talk can also be important – they may have certain speech patterns, talk in a certain way – or perhaps not talk much at all if they are particularly guarded or shy (you’ll reveal why later!). This also helps distinguish characters from each other. The fact that your multiple characters are different people should really be reflected in the dialogue – after all in real life, what two people would talk exactly the same way? Other little details can help too – what little quirks or mannerisms does your character have? What are their opinions on certain topics? What do they like, dislike, or absolutely despise? It’s all about finding your character’s unique voice and how they stand out. The devil is in the details.
In conclusion? Get in that character’s head! Ask them questions! Expose their flaws! Give them a long arduous journey to overcome, with a sunset to walk into at the end. Do that, and you are well on your way to creating a believable, multi-dimensional character.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing (1990)

[2] Margaret Atwood, ‘Spotty-Handed Villainesses :Problems Of Female Bad Behaviour In The Creation Of Literature’ (speech given in 1994) http://gos.sbc.edu/a/atwood.html

[3] Joss Whedon, quote found at http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/characters

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7 thoughts on “How to write realistic, three dimensional characters

  1. Well written. Thanks for sharing. I like to get into the heads of all my characters – even the ones who are only there to help the plot moving. Though I think I know them, they always surprise me and make the plot better with these surprises.

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  2. Well written and quite informative, as well as thought provoking. I’ve printed this out for my ‘On Writing’ file containing useful information on improving my own craft. I’ve found I have created a solid character when the character starts saying and doing things that don’t quite follow my expectations — often leading a story in new and unexpected directions. Thank you for valuable insights.

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