Hi writers! We kicked off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we tackle real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about building 3-dimensional fictional characters.
QUESTION: How do I make my characters 3-dimensional human beings instead of 2-dimensional paper dolls?
Characters are the basis of your stories, the driving force that grasps the attention, the reason why certain plot lines unfold the way they do. Readers want complex characters they can engage with, relate to, and try to unravel through the pages. As Hemingway said, readers want to read about living people, not a “character.” If a character is particularly unattractive (emotionally and mentally, not physically), readers don’t invest their time and energy into them, and the story is already over in essence.
With some careful thought and extra time, your story can bring to life our next favorite complex character who is unique and fascinating in their own right. In order to do this, you need to steer clear of the overdone tropes and avoid generalizations that make your characters blend in with the vast sea of literary characters that already exist. To help you achieve this, consider these four pointers that will help bring your characters to life.
Know the basics...of plot lines, genre tropes, and character stereotypes. If you know what’s overdone, you can actively shape your writing to avoid clichés, add an original twist to them, or combine them to create a new challenge. Creating a fresh plot line will help you create a three-dimensional character who can meet and overcome (or get defeated by) that challenge. Some examples of cliché character tropes include the Chosen One, the damsel in distress, the brooding rebel, the high school hunk, and the Plain Jane. Unless you have a particularly unique approach to subverting these tropes, you’re better off avoiding them altogether. And even if you feel that your approach to a cliché character will be fresh, you should think hard on whether it’s what best serves your story.
Give your character a goal…or better yet, an obsession. What do your characters want in the big picture? What drives their behavior or actions? What do they wish to achieve in a certain moment, and how does that get them closer or farther from their goal? Everything we do is driven by a motive, even if it isn’t explicitly clear. If someone desperately wants money, is it because they want to live comfortably or because they want to show off? This minor distinction is important in creating a well-rounded character and can affect how they would react when their goal is obstructed by different obstacles. Just as we need something to strive for, your characters should always have a goal in the back of their minds. The more intense the goal, the more gripping the story will be, which is why giving your character a single-minded obsession can be a great trick to kick the manuscript into high gear.
Complexity is key. Establish everyone’s skills and flaws, and then build on them throughout the story. Nobody’s perfect, not even fictional characters — they’re clumsy or impatient or self-conscious, among other things. On the other hand, everyone has something they’re good at, including the most incompetent character. But you don’t want to rely on just one trait to define your character, since that will lead to predictability in the plot. Give your characters distinct personalities that are challenged to grow, and don’t be afraid to give them a surprising evolution.
Create contradictions. Now that your characters have a solid personality and their goals in mind, have them contradict themselves. This interesting feature of the human condition is what makes people so frustrating and hard to understand, yet it’s also what makes them relatable. Contradictions are an unavoidable essence of being human, no matter how assured your character may seem. Perhaps your die-hard feminist character has always secretly dreamed of her father walking her down the aisle at her wedding. Or perhaps your philanthropist character can’t bring himself to actually give money to homeless people on the street. Draw from their flaws when adding this extra flavor into their personality. Their behaviors might go against their most valued beliefs or even their goals. This complexity in behavior may not change the plot immensely (though it can), but it draws us in to their psychology while creating some potential tension, either internally or interpersonally.
Though it may seem difficult, and even at times impossible, you can create a character unparalleled in complexity, precisely because that character exists somewhere in your imagination and only you have the power to bring that unique character, with all their quirks and attitudes and problems, into the real world. Just as your characters can transcend the tropes laid out for them, you also have the ability to defy the classic writer stereotype by writing and pouring life into your characters with the words and imagination only you possess.