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Three-dimensional characters

September 26, 2010

When I think of my favorite novels, it’s the characters I remember most. Even if you have an intriguing plot, beautiful language, and witty dialogue, flat characters deal the deathblow to your novel.

So how can you create memorable, believable characters?

  • Give your characters a rich inner life with emotions, thoughts, beliefs, values, fears, and desires.
  • Your main characters should have strong points, some positive traits that we can identify with and admire.
  • The main characters should also have flaws. Like real people, characters shouldn’t be perfect. No one is all good (or all bad, for that matter). Give your characters weaknesses and fears. Flaws make characters more human and give them potential for growth.

  • Make sure your main characters have a goal or desire. Give her something she wants (e.g., solve a murder. If the character doesn’t have a goal, you have no story. As I said before, the goal should be specific and tangible. And it should be urgent – the character should want it badly, not just be mildly interested in reaching her goal.
  • The main character shouldn’t be a victim. That doesn’t mean you can’t make her suffer. In fact, go ahead and make her suffer. Readers tend to sympathize with characters who are suffering. But make sure that the main character doesn’t always meekly duck her head. Make her act instead of just reacting to whatever happens to her. Readers dislike passive characters, so give your main characters goals and make them active.
  • Give your main characters motivations we can understand. Even if readers can’t identify with their goals, we should be able to identify with the motivation, the reason why the character wants to reach that goal. For example, in Hidden Truths, one of Luke’s goals is keeping her daughters from finding out she’s a woman. That makes her a liar, and you might think readers would dislike her. But it’s just the opposite. Most of my test readers named Luke as their favorite character. It’s because they understand her motivation – protecting her family and being afraid of losing their love.
  • Most often, at least your main character should be a dynamic character. During the course of the novel, she should undergo a transformation. She learns and grows because of the events in the story and finally overcomes her fear or flaw, at least enough to deserve a happy end.
  • Maybe you could even give the character a contradiction — two conflicting needs, values, traits, or even contradicting identities. For example, Dexter is a husband, father, and crime-fighting bloodstain pattern analyst, but he’s also a serial killer. Indiana Jones is a courageous adventurer, but he’s afraid of snakes.
  • Give your main character a past that shaped her. What kind of family did she grow up in? What past relationships influenced her? What are her biggest triumphs and regrets? That doesn’t mean that you have to show every bit of backstory in your novel. For the most part, it’s enough if readers can sense it.

I’ll blog more about each of these topics in the future.

By the way, take a look at the menu on the right side. Under “Pages,” you’ll now find links to all of the blog posts about writing, including the things I want to blog about in the future. Let me know if there’s anything else you want me to blog about.

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8 comments

  1. You’ve provided me with a great checklist! I look forward to your comments on each one of these traits.


    • Since I’m starting to create the characters for my next novel, it’s good to remind myself of these essential things.


  2. Great article. I’m 100% with you.

    I hate main characters who are victims, and then wind up forgiving the inevitable ex for reasons I cannot fathom…for example. Don’t make a main character a patsy, a pushover. Let them suffer, struggle. Make that commensurate to their victory/achievement. Just don’t make them a martyr. Martyrs are nice in theory and tend to be insuffferable in real life. ;-)

    I’m looking forward to more!


  3. I agree.

    Rika, one of the main characters in Hidden Truths, suffers a lot. In fact, the first chapters leave her pretty battered. But she sets out to improve her situation… and gets in trouble.

    That’s another important thing. Bad things shouldn’t just happen to characters while they are doing nothing. They should get in trouble because of pursuing their goals.

    But by the end of the story, characters should have recognized their unhealthy patterns, not repeat them.


    • Also, just giving a character a flaw (often based on secretive past) doesn’t make them interesting. I’ve noticed again lately how character driven my reaction to fiction is, and, in turn, how easily I’m bored when the characters are not developed well.


      • I agree. Just because a character is flawed doesn’t mean he or she is interesting or three-dimensional.

        So, as a reader, what makes a character interesting and well-developed to you?


  4. [...] Fiction « Three-dimensional characters strengths and weaknesses September 28, 2010 I mentioned in my blog post on believable [...]


  5. I dislike round characters, and so I make characters as flat as possible. None of your critique will ever change my ways.



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