The Third Dimension Of Character


I’ve been working on my characters a lot lately.  You know, those people who walk around your stories and never end up doing what you want them to?  (And no, I don’t mean my character, though that could probably use some work too).

Characters are fun to work with.  It’s easy to think of them as real people, fun to make up their pasts, their triumphs, mistakes, flaws.  And there are lots of ways to build them out, whether you want to detail every aspect of their personality and see where they take the story, build out the story first then figure out what kind of character you need, or make them up as you go along.  You can be as weird or creative with them as you want.

I pretended (please don’t tell too many people about this) I was talking to one of my characters the other day, and wrote down the interview as if I was transcribing what she was saying to me in first person.  I asked her questions out loud.  Never, in my entire life, have I felt more like a lunatic.  I pray to god that nobody ever reads that full character sheet – her name is Alice, and her interview starts like this:

“I grew up in a family… a good family.  Not rich, but certainly not poor.  Out in the Midwest, you see, we were pretty much all like that.  The same.  It was a good home, white vinyl sides, rustic interior – my father had a plush brown leather armchair he always sat in – I remember that – my (stutter, pause) my father was a good man, really.”

As I was finishing the character sheets for my current WIP, I got into the more nuanced parts, the parts that really make a character come alive, make him or her seem real.  Everyone has little ticks – those small things they do – that really make them who they are.  It’s often the key details that makes your character breathe into a third dimension, and it’s something I think gets left out of a lot of stories.  Whether your character is central to the story, peripheral, or just passing through, they all have little things that make them unique.  Don’t skimp on them.

It can be as cliche as a character cracking his or her knuckles in a stressful situation, or getting sweaty palms; it can be as weird as putting on chapstick every fifteen minutes; it can be as personal as cracking their neck incessantly or smiling slightly for no reason at all (I actually do those two things).  Give everyone something special.

Beyond that, when it comes to the unique way characters act, an interesting piece of advice I took to heart recently came from James Patterson’s Masterclass (no I swear this is not a sponsored blog post – I was really curious about what the course would be like).  He said, in essence:

“Be There.  Be in the character’s head – not just the point of view character, but every character in the scene.  No bullshit.  Don’t write crap just to get through your plot beats.  Think about what is actually happening, put yourself in the scene.  What is going through their head?  Why are they doing the things they are doing?  It’s complicated.  Explain it.”

Any maybe try to have a little fun along the way.

What about you?  Do you give each of your characters little ticks and habits to make them unique?  What are some of your favorites, either from your work or from a favorite book?

6 comments on “The Third Dimension Of Character”

  1. I love this, David. Most times, people who do not write novels don’t really understand the process of character writing. In my second novel, The Last Bordello, one of my characters just showed up! I loved her and didn’t realize she would be such an important part of the story. I usually don’t talk to my characters. Instead, they talk to me! Thanks for this post!!

  2. Characters are my favorite. I was just having a conversation about this at dinner just before reading your post. Thanks for your anecdote about pretending to talk to your character. It’s important, for a WIP, to treat characters like people, walk around in their skin, or pretend their in the room taking up space. But they have to also stand out like you said. “Ticks” give us dimension and flavor. Thanks again! ~Julie Tyler

  3. The most fun I have in writing is in putting two characters somewhere together and just typing what comes out of their mouths. I’m always a little surprised by where it goes.

  4. I don’t think you’re crazy, if that makes you feel better. I think it’s important to have that dialogue, and good point about having that information for all characters, even the minor ones. Even if you don’t use all that information you’ve learned. Even if it means crazy antics. 🙂

    I definitely try to give my characters some external behavior to correspond to a certain emotion. In poker speak, a tell. I don’t do this for all, but I try to give them something else that signifies their external self. And sometimes I try to make those behaviors something that only another character notices, so then both characters are revealed (the last as someone who observes behavior, or small details, or weird details, etc). After all, we all know that person who can’t stand to let you walk by without fixing your tag or picking a hair off your shirt, and that says something about that person. Or a character might notice a strange way of speaking, not an external trait, but it’s just as important. Some people change the topic every three sentences, and others won’t let it go, even though everyone else has moved on. The trick is to figure out who is noticing what. (This applies more in first or third person.)

    1. I love that, calling it a ‘tell’; and having just one other character notice a quirk makes it meaningful for both of them. Thanks for sharing!

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