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25 Ways to Create Three-Dimensional Characters

1.    Steal a real one

Sometimes you probably read about another writer’s character or watch one in a movie and you’re stunned by how lifelike the character seems. Sure, it may be that that writer is a literary genius…but there are few geniuses out there and chances are that character seems like a real person, because it is one.

Now, before you begin your vehement arguments that Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump are not real people, lets clarify…characters in works of fiction are not real people, but they may be so closely based on them, that they might as well be. Do you think the writer of Bridget Jones, has never been in close contact with a sweet, funny, overly self-conscious woman? That’s unlikely.

Pick interesting people you know and write them into your story as characters.

Just ask yourself, “what would Vince do in this situation?” You know Vince. What would he say? What would he do? It makes your job so much easier and of course, if you don’t let the cat out of the bag, no one has to know that your characters are essentially real people. Instead everyone will think you’re some kind of literary genius for “creating” great three-dimensional characters.

2.    Create an artificial life

Okay, if you want to do things the hard way, you can also do things the fun way by playing God. You can create a synthetic character pieced together from bits and shards of your knowledge and experience.

Some writers and mentors even suggest knowing your invented chracter’s entire life story; where they went to kindergarten, what their favorite dessert is, what the worst grade they ever got on a quiz was and why.

Some say the devil is in the details and it certainly can be true. The better you know your character, the better you might be able to get your readers/viewers to know them. 

Playing God can be fun, but creating imaginary characters, which act and speak naturally is harder than one might guess. That’s why big kudos go to those talented few who pull it off.

3.    Write yourself

What many writers do is they “cheat.” They’re not writing fictional characters, they’re just inserting themselves and their personality and worldview into different situations.

But “no,” you may shout, “these characters are very different!”

Ah, but so are the different facets of a person’s personality. So, one character may be a composite of the writer’s hope, faith and innocence and that character is light and pleasant, while another darker character is patchwork of the author’s cynicism, doubt and disillusionment.

All the characters inhabiting many famous books, movies and plays are all the just different versions of the author. They’re just different sides of the author’s personality, interacting with each other.

Why try to break the mold? You can use this simple technique as well!

4.    Adapt an existing character

Okay, I’m sure many writers will raise an eyebrow at this one and other purists may get even more worked up about it, but this trick will be included especially for those ambitious people who seek fame as writers and creators, but who lack the talent.

It is very difficult to create wonderful characters and great dialogue from scratch and there are many writers who frankly, will never have the ability to do it. Should those writers give up all their dreams and find a new line of work? Maybe, but if they’re driven to write, talent be damned, then this trick is for them.

Take an existing character from another author’s book or movie, a three-dimensional character with some personality, change the name, alter some details and toss that well developed character into a completely different situation. Take Jack Nickelson’s unsympathetic character in “As Good as it Gets,” for instance, take him, edit his history and toss him into a romance, or a drama about lawyers.

Do writers actually do this? Yeah, probably. Does this method thrive on artistic integrity and creativity? Not in the slightest!

But in your defense, if you do decide to use this method, you’re still going to have to adapt the character successfully to new situations and write all knew dialogue, which is still entertaining and worthwhile. Even though you sort-of borrowed a preconceived character, your task is still gargantuan.

Do highly acclaimed big box office artists do stuff like this? Heck yeah! For all those people who thought “Avatar” was so new and innovative,  go back and check out the same exact story as told in “Fern Gully” and “Dances with Wolves,” years earlier. The story is always similar and so are the characters.

5.    Write for your actor

It may help you to choose your preferred actor or actress, so you can write with that person in mind.

For example, if you think Julia Roberts would be the perfect fit to play your heroine, then picture Julia playing that part. How would she speak? What would she say? What would her body language be? You’ve probably seen enough of her that visualizing her could help spark ideas for your character as well.

6.    Adapt yourself

Okay, trick #1 in creating three-dimensional characters is simply giving yourself another name and writing yourself into your script with some changes to your history. But you say, I need to write a villain and I’m not a bad person. I can’t write myself as the villain. Come on, sure you can!

Everyone has a dark side where they wish they could do some unethical things sometimes. Just tap into that side of your personality and wherever you would go left,” evil-you” goes right. Simple.

You should be able to write a wide variety of characters just by tapping into different sides of your personality.

7.    Show don’t tell

This is one of the primary rules of good writing! Don’t write dialogue that’s “on the nose” and don’t give us all the details. Show and shorten.

Give us clues about your characters and let us figure it out instead of telling us.  When your characters talk, don’t have them tell us how they’re feeling. Have them say something else and give your audience a chance to interpret it. This makes your audience/readers active instead of passive and it makes your work arguably a lot more interesting and artistic. It’s a puzzle to ponder, instead of a picture to glance at.

8.    Live your characters

You’ve probably heard of some actors who actually stay in their role, even when they’re not shooting. So if that actor is a mean and selfish bastard in the movie, then when you see them at the confection table during the break, they’re still going to be that same mean and selfish bastard, no matter how nice they are in real life.

You can do this too. As the author of a novel, try being that character in your book. Think about what they think about. Use their worldview. Talk like they do. This can give you a lot of answers, a lot of characterization and a lot of dialogue, besides it can always be fun to try on someone else’s shoes for a while. Just warn family and friends before you turn into another person.

9.    Become a master stylist

What type of clothes does a conceited person wear? What does a prostitute’s make-up look like? How does a teenage boy in China dress? What hairstyle is popular with young African American females right now?

The point is, if you’re going to show and not tell, you better figure out how things look, so you can show them properly. Clothes, hairstyles, tattoos, body language, esthetic tastes and speech patterns are some of the easiest ways to distinguish characters and bring them to life.

10.    Give your character an interesting situation

It’s hard to have great characters, if they don’t do anything interesting. For example, you could have the most amazing and interesting character ever, from a cognitive standpoint, but if your story revolves around them living a wonderful life where they inherited money and stay home and watch TV all-day, there’s really only so much of that we’re going to want to watch.

People want to see struggle. They want to see obstacles and adversaries. They want to see highs and lows. They want to see characters that learn and grow and adapt. Your character desperately needs at least one nearly unobtainable goal and plenty of nearly insurmountable obstacles to run through. Without that, your character is likely to be a bit dull, no matter how “three-dimensional” they are.

11.    Find your character’s unique voice

The PHD scientist who devises a way to save the Earth from Alien invaders (almost always, unless it’s your intentional and well-executed gimmick) should not talk like the teenage slacker who smokes pot at all hours and refuses to get a job or move out of his mother’s basement.

People of different types talk differently. People of different ages, ethnicities and dispositions generally speak differently as well.

You, as God of your universe, must create dialogue that not only sounds believable, but is also interesting. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. How?

Check out tips 1, 3, 14, 16, 17 and 19 in this list.

12.    Research

Unless you are a teenage genius, if you want your character to be a teenage genius, you better get on the internet and do a substantial amount of research on teenage geniuses and then meet and interact with some of them. The same holds true for professional painters, politicians, scientists, lawyers, etc. Do your homework. 

You’re the creator and you can invent, but the closer you invent to what is, the more power it will be. 

13.    Give your character unique strengths and weaknesses

If it’s a comedy, make your Rambo-esque hero afraid of feminine hygiene products. If it’s a science fiction movie, make water lethal to your hero’s survival. If it’s an action movie, make your heroine claustrophobic, make your love interest in a romance terrified of spoons, etc.

For example, a wonderful and highly underrated high-concept movie was “Memento,” starring fantastic actor, Guy Pierce, as a hero who has no long-term memory. He must find clues that he leaves himself every day, in order to understand who he is, what he needs to do and what has happened. It’s a wonderful and brilliant movie, which is a great example of giving a character such an interesting weakness that you can actually adapt the entire movie around that one foible.

Other great examples might include “Forrest Gump” and “Sling Blade,” both of which feature main characters who are mentally handicapped, but very interesting and endearing.

“Rumble Fish,” which is excellent, could also be mentioned for featuring a hero who is color blind.  
You get the idea.

14.    Use social media for quotes and dialogue

You know where some o f the best dialogue you can possibly find is? It’s at parties and friendly 3 a.m. chat sessions at local diners, where college students are cracking jokes and mulling over their romances, disillusionments and embarrassing confessions. If you have access to those moments, you can pull out a little pad of paper and scribble out your notes as fast as you possibly can and get some wonderful material. Sure, they’ll think you’re weird, but who cares.

On the other hand, an easier place to find those same conversations already typed out and numbering in the millions, is every single day on social internet sites like Facebook, Linkedin groups and Myspace.

All you have to do is troll those sites for interesting comments and conversations, find great quotes and interesting snippets of conversation, adapt them and plug them into your script.

15.    Make your characters unique

How do you make your characters unique?

Give them unique goals, mannerisms, dialects, strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, situations, hobbies, dispositions, quirks, histories, opinions, reactions, questions, answers, sayings, humor, romantic gestures, abilities, attributes, fears, philosophies, world views, likes and dislikes.

Of course, “unique” is not exactly the right word, since someone somewhere already has the traits you’re hoping to instill into your “unique” character, but think of it as seasoning a soup; there are a lot of seasonings to choose from and you’re looking to select some uncommon ingredients and mix them up in unique proportions, so that no one has quite experienced that exact flavor before.

16.    Live

They say, “Write what you know.”

If you don’t live an interesting life, it will be harder for you to write about characters with interesting lives.

Gain experience. Observe. Explore. Interpret. Conclude. Fail. Succeed. Consider it research.

17.    Be social

A lot of writers are not social, that’s why they write. But you will be the exception for two reasons. First, you know that you have to live and experience life to make you a better writer, because it puts you closer to your subject matter and gives you better material and second, because how are you going to create characters that are interesting, if you don’t know anyone who is interesting?

18.    Observe people

Watch! Watch! Watch!

Watch for body language. Watch for situations. Watch for posture and facial expressions. Watch for fashion trademarks and surprising and memorable actions.

You may be the creative God in your stories, but you’re also a voyeur. It helps to have practice.

19.    Ask lots of questions

Ask your friends a ton of “what if” questions. Ask your family. Ask strangers on the bus. Who cares if they think you’re weird? Tell them you’re doing research for a movie and they may start suddenly start thinking you’re cool for no apparent reason.

Why ask lots of questions?

Well, to get all kinds of interesting answers of course! You can get some great responses for your characters, some great personality traits, insights and even some great stories, so ask away!

20.    Become a master of body language

One of the first rules of writing is “show don’t tell” and there are few better ways to do that, then to let characters speak with their body language and actions. Don’t rely solely on words.

If you want to be successful at this, you need to read books about body language interpretation and start observing people from all walks of life, in all situations and see how they speak…with their bodies. Master that language and your characters will really begin to come to life!

21. Borrow Shaping Moments

This goes back to a couple of the earlier tips...being social, asking a lot of questions and using great stories that other people give you. Along those lines, here's one more tip. Think about the character you want and then take one of those stories and turn it into a defining moment for that character. To do that, you have to figure out how that character gets from Point A to Point B. If your character doesn't quite seem like the character to have that event in their life, it might make the character even more interesting and three-dimensional if you can pull it off.

22. Interview your character

Credit for this tip, which spawned several others, goes to Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein, as posted on the "Screenwriting" Linkedin group.

Pretend you're a reporter and you sit down for a five-minute chat with your character. Write down all your character's answers. You're likely to learn a lot about your character that you didn't know. Ask good questions and listen to what your character is telling you.

23. Interview yourself

Pretend your book or movie has been finished and is wildly successful. You will play two roles. You are the reporter and you're going to ask yourself questions as the creator. What makes your character special? What other characters would you compare your character to and why does that character resonates so well with the audience? Who knows what you might figure out for the present, while you're imagining your future.

24. Why limit yourself

Hey, the idea to interview your character is a great creative technique and so is interviewing your future successful self, but why limit yourself. Why not go out with your character on a full-fledged night on the town? Where do you go? What do you do? What do you talk about? What does your character say and what do you learn about their habits, and demeanor? Do you stay out until sunrise, or does your character lead you home before curfew?

25. Open Pandora's Box

Now maybe you're a creative writer supreme and you insist that you have already tried all 24 of the ideas that have come before. Here's something unique. Write as many positive and negative character traits as you can think of on little sheets of paper, then mix them up on the floor, face down. Pick up 10 of these character traits randomly. This is your character.

It's likely that some of these character traits might not seem to jibe with one another, but people in real life are often contradictions as well. Now, you have something resembling a real person, a mess of mixed up and conflicting strengths and weaknesses, dispositions and demeanors. Now, here is your challenge; Figure out the backstory that turns this conflicting network of traits into a believable character which makes complete and utter sense and then you have your perfect three-dimensional character.


Comments sent

6 comment(s).
zaheer - 8/25/2018 1:45:36 AM
This is trash. It doesn't even explain what two or three-dimensional characters are. Worse, most of the listed hack 'methods' have nothing to do with building three-dimensional characters - let alone two-dimensional.
Do not rely on this thing (nearly used the word article ... ha-ha) for anything.
Kait - 1/31/2017 9:28:19 AM
Will try these
Logical Spiritualism - 1/12/2016 9:15:13 PM
Shah, you are clearly a very wise guru of writing wisdom. Please, instead of whining about how terrible the free knowledge provided to you is, provide your own vastly better knowledge to help others as I have tried.
Shah Ked - 12/31/2015 2:11:38 AM
This is trash. It doesn't even explain what two or three-dimensional characters are. Worse, most of the listed hack 'methods' have nothing to do with building three-dimensional characters - let alone two-dimensional.
Do not rely on this thing (nearly used the word article ... ha-ha) for anything.
Logical Spiritualism - 4/27/2012 6:24:04 AM
Thanks, Ed!

It's wonderful that you're finding the materials useful and we're glad that Logical Spiritualism could be of value to you.

Good luck on your screenplay!!!

Keep an eye out for more writing tips from Logicalspiritualism.com.
Ed Leech - 4/27/2012 5:11:41 AM
Great ideas on characters. I am just starting a new screenplay and this will be useful in creating my 3D guys and gals...Thanks.

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