Monday 24 March 2014

The Three Dimensions of Character
A well-rounded character who feels like a real person is obviously what we all want to write. Sometimes this naturally occurs, maybe because the character is based on a real person or on an archetype of the genre. In some cases they may be based on another fictional character from a favourite book.

The writer feels comfortable with writing about them because they know exactly who they’re writing about.

There’s no reason why that approach won’t work. Obviously there’s the danger of creating a cliché or stereotype, but even then that can work if the story is strong enough.

If, however, you want to write a character from the ground up, a character who is as real as any person living, yet wholly your own creation, then there are three aspects you need to know in depth: the physical, sociological and psychological.

These three are pretty straightforward to understand. Physical is how the character looks and what kind of condition they’re in. Sociological is their background and current circumstances. Psychological is their mental state and their attitude to life.

Knowing this, though, is not the same as knowing how to use them to fully flesh out a character.


You will have an idea about how they character looks. You may have very specific details in mind, or you may choose to keep things a little vague so the reader is more easily able to identify with the character. How you present the character to the reader is your choice and has nothing to do with what I mean by their physical aspect.

The only important role of physical appearance when it comes to creating a three-dimensional character is how it affects their behaviour.

Do they feel insecure about a big nose? Are they hit on by men because of good looks? Do they stand out in a crowd because of their height? Does their poor health stop them from doing strenuous activities? Do they dye their ginger hair out of shame?

Any physical attribute that doesn’t really bother the character one way or the other is irrelevant. Not that you can’t include them if you wish, but in terms of knowing who you are writing about there are things that will tell you a great deal about them, and then there are things that don’t make much of a difference.

How someone is brought up, where they come from and what kind of a life they had (rich, poor, crime, privilege...) will all make a difference to the kind of person they become.

This is true in real life, and it’s the same for fictional characters.

There are two things to be aware of here. First, it’s more important for the writer to know the minutiae of the character’s background than it is for the reader. You don’t have to give the reader an explanation of why the character is the way he is (in fact I would strongly advise against it). What’s more important is the resulting behaviour. But it will come across as more authentic and believable if there is a solid foundation to this behaviour in the writer’s mind.

And secondly, bear in mind that two people who grew up next door to each other with very similar upbringings won’t be the same person. Just because someone is brought up in financial hardship doesn’t mean they will turn to a life of crime. Just because someone is abused as child won’t make them a serial killer.

Every cause has a multitude of effects, some more common than others, but it’s the connection for the writer (and eventually the reader) that counts. It’s obviously true that the more common outcomes are quicker and easier to grasp, but it’s the conviction of the writer, how strongly they believe in this particular cause and effect, that will be transmitted to the reader.

That means even a hackneyed premise can work if the writer is all-in, and equally, a brilliant and original concept can fall flat on its face if the writer doesn’t really believe in it.


How a character views life, what principles they hold to (if any) and how they react to predicaments they may find themselves in comes down to two things, nature and nurture.

To some degree, people have an innate way of being. Some are depressed and surly, some are upbeat and optimistic. Some are motivated and full of drive, others have to drag themselves out of bed every morning. If one brother is consumed by science, while the other is mad for racing cars, you’d be hard pressed to find the source of these two different passions in their shared childhood.

This sort of genetic disposition is of limited use in terms of writing. There are obviously people like that, who are just born with a predilection to act in a certain way, but if that behaviour plays a central role in the story then it can easily feel contrived and convenient. 

Why did he do that surprising thing? Nobody knows, he’s always been like that...

The fact that this may be true to life doesn’t make it interesting in a story, although that doesn’t mean you can’t this sort of approach, it’s just that it should be used with extra care.

The nurture part of a character’s psychological make-up is basically a combination of the first two aspects, the physical and the sociological.

Drawing a connection between the way a person feels about themselves and how their environment has treated them with the way they act in later life isn’t too difficult. But often it feels easy because we’re marrying the first two things we think of and you end up with something trite and obvious.

This is especially common when you work backwards. You have a character in mind, he’s a happy-go-lucky thief with a charming smile and a penchant for stealing from very rich assholes, so what would his background be...? And as soon as you come up with something that makes sense you bang it onto the page.

Working backwards like this is, of course, a perfectly valid way to do it, but it’s worth remembering that as well as each cause having many effects, it is also true that each effect can have many causes.

Once you have a grasp of these three elements you will have access to not only to what a character would do in a situation but also why they would do it. That understanding will enable a much more intimate relationship with the character which in turn will lead to a more confident and assured approach to the story.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Working backwards doesn't always work because one small event can alter the way a person thinks or acts contrary to how they were raised.
Good points, Moody.

mooderino said...

@Alex - yes, you have to step very carefully.

Kelly Steel said...

I've started doing character backgrounds and interviewing my characters to know them better.

Unknown said...

The psychological aspect made me think of my daughter's deviant behavior instructor who mentioned Ted Bundy in one of his lectures. He had an opportunity years ago to visit the death row prison where Bundy awaited his extermination.

His description of Bundy when he looked into his eyes was "he had no soul". That's pretty descriptive if you think about what Bundy loved about murdering his victims. He liked to squeeze until the victim's eyes rolled back into their heads and back, the life draining moment.

Creepy stuff.

mooderino said...

@Kelly - it's important to focus on the stuff that affects behaviour rather than a history of everything.

@Diane - thanks, nightmares for me then.

Unknown said...

Great post about creating characters, concise and perceptive as usual. I hear too much about flawed characters, but I like the way you've set up the three point background much better because in truth, we're all "flawed," so it doesn't mean much to give a character obvious flaws. Thanks! :)

mooderino said...

@Lexa - I can usually guess what the writer's planning a mile off when they use the standard flaws for a character. Fun game, not a fun read.

The Armchair Squid said...

"Any physical attribute that doesn’t really bother the character one way or the other is irrelevant."

I must challenge you on that one. A physical trait can have an enormous impact on how others react to that character in ways said character is not fully aware. I do think too many writers get bogged down with details but there is more to the physical than self-perception.

mooderino said...

@Squid - You're right, an oversight on my part. The physical trait should have some effect on behaviour, but it doesn't have to be the charcter who is the one affected. Thanks for the correction.

Rick Watson said...

You do a good job with your posts. Always full of information you can use.

Chemist Ken said...

My characters kind of come to me as I'm writing the story. They morph with time as I learn about them. I don't spend enough time going back and figuring out what caused them to feel that way in the first place.

Unknown said...

I like your take on personally and character. I agree the reader has to feel for it.

Misha Gerrick said...

I tend to get all this done organically by acting as if the character's a real person that I get to know through the first draft.

mooderino said...

@Rick - thanks, kind of you to say.

@Ken - sometimes that approach works great, sometimes it really helps to have some background info on them.

@Lilith - cheers.

@Misha - that does the same thing although it can take a little longer that way.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Great pointers on fleshing out characters, Moody. I love coming to your blog for all the writing wisdom. Hopefully some of it rubs off on me.

Maria said...

Fleshing out characters is really important when writing a novel. I tend to only give one or two physical details, preferring to leave it up to the readers imagination. But the sociological and psychological I tend to spend a lot of time on these days. Thank you for sharing.

Sabahshooter said...

moody ...
hi ,i would like to get more details about creating three dimensional character.
# thanks

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