The Key to Writing 3-Dimensional Characters

The most common advice I’ve heard for writing three-dimensional characters is to delve into their backstory, develop their personality profiles, and get to know them as if they are alive and kicking right beside you. Common wisdom seems to support that if the author knows their characters inside and out, then said characters will be three-dimensional on the page.

But it’s not always that easy. I just finished reading a book where all the characters were flat as pancakes, despite the reader knowing their backstories and character traits. The author attempted to give the characters depth by adding layers of information, except the problem with these layers is they were transparent. The reader could quite literally see through them to all the other layers. Do you all know about the onion metaphor? How the best characters are like an onion where you peel back the layers? The key to that working is you can’t see the layer below until you peel back the one above.

To put it simply, three-dimensional characters need SECRETS.

onion peeling

Now I don’t mean the characters must be withholding secrets from other characters (though they certainly can be), but rather that the author needs to withhold information from the reader regarding the characters. And when the author reveals that information, it should surprise the reader. When characters don’t have secrets, when they are exactly who they seem to be, they are predictable, and that makes the story dull.

So what kind of character secrets are we talking about here? Let me give some examples:

  • Personality Secret. People always present a certain version of themselves in public, but who are they really? Same goes for your characters. They all have a public persona, and that is what readers see first. But as the story progresses, peel back the layers and let readers find out who your characters really are. Maybe that strict vegan puts cream in her coffee when no one is looking. Or that grumpy lady loses her perma-scowl when she sees the old man next door.

  • Purpose Secret. This is when the reader thinks a character wants one thing but really they’re after another, or the character’s motivations are different than expected. This is a great way to add depth. Plus, this happens all the time in real life (always get the full story before making a character judgement, right?) and makes fictional characters feel as real and multi-faceted as you or me.

  • Identity Secret. Who doesn’t love a secret identity? It could be a secret the character keeps from others, or it could be a secret the character doesn’t even know themselves. It can be big (the character is really a princess!) or small (the character is so-and-so’s ex).

  • Opinion Secret. We don’t always say exactly what we mean, and neither should our characters. Writers can have fun with this by having a supporting character reveal what they really think of the hero’s plan at a crucial moment.

  • Backstory Secret. This is the most commonly used secret for trying to add depth to characters. The trick is to make sure the secret casts the character in a new light. For instance, if the hero is a tough guy and we learn that when he was five he was suspended for fighting, that adds no depth to his character because it’s predictable. But if we find out he was a peacemaker in his youth, then that’s a surprise and makes the character more intriguing because now we’re all wondering what turned this pacifist into a fighter.

The common denominator to all these secrets is they are contradictory to how the character was introduced. A secret must show the character in a new light, otherwise it’s not adding depth or dimension.

A simple test to see if your characters are three-dimensional is to ask this:

Does my character do anything unexpected?

If not, he or she is one-dimensional. And don’t mistake shocking for unexpected. I read a book where one character did some shockingly bad things, but he was set up to be such an awful person that these things weren’t unexpected at all. Therefore, he was a one-dimensional villain who was predictable and boring. And boring is what we’re all trying to avoid when writing stories!

Bottom line, characters who are three-dimensional are never who they initially seem to be. So give them some secrets!

 

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

22 thoughts on “The Key to Writing 3-Dimensional Characters”

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment, Hannah! We do our best to keep the posts useful and fresh. And usually we reply to comments promptly, but yours must have gotten missed in the busy summer shuffle. Still, it was a nice surprise to find. 😉

  1. One of the best posts I’ve read on creating ‘real’ characters. Slow exposition, with the questions remaining in the background, only parceling out what the reader NEEDS to know as you go along. I love it.

  2. I’m just *itching* to get back to my novel (having finally finished and published my non-fiction work!) and every time I read things like this is sets me off thinking about my characters. I think some of them are more fully developed than others, but at the moment i fear my main protagonist is still too flat. I do think she needs something unexpected about her, so thanks for this, lots of food for thought!

  3. I just found WriteOnSisters via #BlogBattle and Rachael Richey. I spent an hour tripping around and I love it. There’s lots of great content here.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Tracey

    1. Hi Tracey,
      That was me visiting #BlogBattle posts today. I followed a link last week from Melissa Barker-Simpson’s blog and found myself hooked. I loved the piece you wrote. I was going to enter one of my own pieces today, but my story turned out family unfriendly. : ( Maybe next week. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. I guess, in other words, they need to be like we are. We all are a bit complicated and some have more secrets than others. Good write-up and advise. 🙂
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal – Impartial, Straighforward Fiction Book Reviews

  5. So, I was going to do a similar post next month, lol! Anyway, It sounds like you’re saying this is mostly about presentation. What the reader sees at the beginning of the story is, as you said, public persona. The author needs to be purposeful about which aspects of the character are showing and when.

    1. Very true. Sometimes it’s a matter of what’s showing, and sometimes it’s making sure those characters have something to show! Though it all looks the same to the reader. I guess, as a reader, I always assume if a character comes off as one-dimensional that’s because they don’t have any interesting secrets, not that the writer gave everything away too soon. But as you point out, it could easily be that too!

      Thanks for the comment! And I look forward to reading your post next month. (Also, props for planning ahead like that! I’m proud of myself if I come up with a blog post before the week ends.)

      1. I have some trouble because I tend to write 3rd person limited, where the characters have a lot more going on than shows up “on screen” in my early drafts and then I have to find ways to make them go to the internal places they’re trying not to go, or something is obvious to me because I know the character, but turns out to be opaque to the audience. (Thank goodness for beta readers.) My characters are masters at keeping stuff close and avoiding their own problems while trying to solve the problems of the universe. Don’t know where they get that from. 😉

        LOL. Thanks. I write in clusters–bunches of blog drafts, and then bunches of fiction or some other nonfiction project. So I end up with stuff scheduled in advance a lot.

        1. Hey Rose, sounds like the same problem as I have. One of my beta readers put it most effectively (so effectively, in fact, that he made me think long and hard and finally change the opening of my novel): secrets and mystery are good, but if there is too much mystery, the reader gets confued, and you don’t want that.

          For me, it was illuminating, because I’ve always thought there can never be too much mystery.

          So, I think the syntesis of what you and Heather think is the secret to a multi-layer character: having secrets, having a strong first impression of the character, and then try to balance secrets and revelations in order to present a more faithful portray of the character… and by this I mean, a more faitful presentation of his heart rather than his mask.

          Sounds like a leisurly walk, doens’t it? 😉

          1. Oh my gosh, characters are hard! Re-reading my own posts and the comments I missed to refresh my brain, and I’m already daunted by the challenges my current WIP is presenting with regards to this. Leisurely – Ha! 🙂

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