• Sarah Leonard

Creating 3-Dimensional Characters

Plot is, perhaps, one of the most important parts of a novel. But, what drives that plot? What gives it substance, conflict, and the sweet breath of life that keeps readers addicted?


However, a novel can only make those characters addictive if they are believable, if they are 3-dimensional. You should be able to imagine your character sitting next to you or having a drink with you at a bar. When first starting a novel, I recommend creating characters using internal and external elements. Consider internal elements mapping your characters out. Using those elements, you can dive in and explore the people you are creating. External elements take those internal elements and weave them into your text so your character comes to life on and off the pages of your novel. Let your darlings breathe!

Internal Elements


No one likes a perfect character. They are unrelatable. Even more so, they are not believable. Flaws are what make us human. We root for those flawed characters to push through their struggles and overcome. What is there to root for if the character is perfect? There are no stakes, because they'd be able to get past any obstacle easily. Hence, there is no novel. Even Superman has a weakness. Find your character's kryptonite.

But, don't go overboard. No one like an awful character. If they have no redeeming qualities, why would we want to spend an entire novel with them? Have you ever met that person that complains all the time and plagues everyone around them with negativity? Would you want to spend an entire novel with that person? I sure wouldn't. Find a balance between perfection and imperfection. Your character shouldn't be a complete dud, but they shouldn't be unbeatable either.

An easy way to make your character interesting is by breaking stereotypes. No one likes a stereotypical character. They're predictable. Have you ever seen the movie Kick-Ass? One of the characters is this little girl, Mindy. She comes across as this innocent child, like any other. Then, it's discovered that she's also known as Hit-Girl: a trained, badass killer that could kick your butt any day of the week. Would you have expected that knowing her demographics? I sure wouldn't have. That broken stereotype in regards to her gender and age makes her character so much more interesting. Be careful, though. Don't break a stereotype just to break it. Make sure that it makes sense with your character.

While you're figuring out your character, you need to make sure you document everything. Map out every single detail: fears, desires, education, goals, etc. Go as far as figuring out habits and mannerisms. I have a friend who strokes her eyebrow when she's stressed. If I read a book and it said the character was doing that, I would affiliate it with her. It's distinctive. Appearance can give your character depth. Maybe they have a scar with significance.

You should know your character as well as you know someone close to you. You should know them as well as you know yourself. By the time you're done, you should be able to answer any question that comes your way. You should be able to throw them into any situation and know exactly how they would act.


Backstory is essential for building your character in the present action, but not all of it should be mentioned in your actual novel. As Stephen King states, "The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn't very interesting" (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft). Maybe your character almost drowned as a kid. That may not be very interesting to your readers in your story, but it could have made your character deathly afraid of water. That past event gave your character a present characteristic. It somehow shaped who they are. Past affects the present. It affects your character's choices, characteristics, motivations, and conflicts. For this reason, you should write down every single moment of their life from birth to present action. You could end up having as little as two pages of text or as many as twenty.

Backstory can also add complexity to seemingly stereotypical characters. Let's say you're writing about a school bully. He picks on everyone and is your basic mean kid. But, then you find out his father is abusive. That could be why he bullies. Not only does this give your character an extra layer, but it gives readers sympathy for him.


Conflict is when a character's desire is challenged. This desire meets some kind of resistance or obstacle, whether it be from other characters or from within the character. It's essential to your character and your story, because it makes them achieving their goal hard. It also makes your character, drumroll please, 3-dimensional. Internally, conflicts can come in the form of emotions such as guilt, doubts, fears, and regrets. They can also come in the form of your character's morals.

No matter the form, it's vital that the obstacle and your character's wants and motivations are of equal force. Their want must be big enough for them to be willing to confront their obstacle. The obstacle must be big enough for the character to second-guess or have difficulty surpassing their obstacle. The "crucible" keeps that motivation alive. As stated in How to Write a Damn Good Novel, the crucible is "the bond that keeps them in conflict with one another," 'them' being the characters. What they want is big enough to make them stay. Let's say someone is in a job they hate, but if they stay another month then they'll have enough money to pay their house mortgage before it's too late. The money is their crucible.

It's important to keep in mind that the levels of conflict vary depending on character. One character may feel enormous guilt for killing someone while another will feel that same amount of guilt for slapping someone. This can show how moral your character is or how evil they are. It's revealing.

External Elements


Conflict creates empathy. A character's conflict is relatable. It's human. We all have conflicts, but we handle them in different ways. Characters' struggles and how they face them make us care. We want to see them overcome. Conflict can be shown in multiple forms:

Other characters: When they have different goals, those goals clash. They become obstacles for each other. You can show these conflicting goals through dialogue. How do the characters reach their goal? Do they reach it by being kind to the other character or by being mean?

Environment: Surroundings can keep characters from their goals. Through this, we can see what they are willing do to reach their goal. Let's say there's a building that stands behind a character and their main goal. Will they blow up the building to get to the other side or find a secret entrance? How far do your characters' morals stretch?

Internal: These type of conflicts--guilt, regret, fear--can be some of the hardest obstacles for a character to face. They are their own conflict.

When writing out internal conflict, you need to know how quickly to build it. You have to make sure that the pace of the conflict makes sense. What does it take to finally push your character past their breaking point? Going too fast makes a character unbelievable. In some circumstances, it’s reasonable for someone to jump from being perfectly happy to balling in tears. For example, if my low tempered character’s father suddenly keels over and dies, my character will reasonably jump from happy to a mess of grief and tears. If my low tempered character accidentally locks themselves out of their phone and suddenly bursts into tears, that doesn’t make sense. It would take more, and it should take more.

Also, don’t go too slow. This halts character development. They're not getting anywhere. They're stuck. Building conflict should take time, but not too much time. It’s like when you’re on a roller coaster and slowing going higher and higher to the top. The higher you go, the more tension you feel. The more nervous you get. That nervousness turns into fear. When you get to the top, that fear heightens even more. Then, when the roller coaster speeds down on the other side of the peak, that fear turns into terror. Having your character push past a conflict for a goal, in this case being able to ride the roller coaster with his/her friends, can bring about a beautiful storm of emotions.


When you look at a room, you don't always see everything. There's things your eyes catch, that your attention drifts to. That's why when describing a scene in a novel, it's very important to use voice. Don't just narrate. What a character sees is personalized. It's not exactly what's there. While someone who lives in a house may notice a new green vase, someone who doesn't live there may notice the grandfather clock that has been there for years.

If it's not essential to the scene, you don't need to describe it. Use your character not only to show what's important but to show what the character is like, to get an idea of what they how they speak, how they sound. Things will be described differently by different characters. Take the green vase, for example. Someone who doesn’t like the color may describe it as a bright puke green while someone who likes it may describe it as an apple green.

Setting can also be used to show your character's knowledge. Take this tree, for example. To me, it's just a tree. But for someone who knows a lot about trees, like an Environmental Scientist perhaps, it's a Silver Fir. If there's a victim bleeding out on the floor, a doctor will describe what they see differently than someone with no medical knowledge.


Appearance can give an idea of characteristics. An old woman wearing young people clothing may have a young soul. It can give an idea of backstory. Maybe your character has a scar that is significant to their past. It can give an idea of a character's financial situation. If someone is unshaven, has pants with holes and covered in dirt, a jacket two sizes too big, rotted teeth, and shoes fished out of a dumpster, it wouldn't be unsafe to assume they're homeless. It can give an idea of religious belief, if, for example, they are wearing a hijab. It can give an idea of time period. Perhaps your character is wearing a bustle. Without straightforwardly stating anything, you can show readers some of the foundation of your story.

When using appearance to show characteristics, be careful of stereotypes. Don’t give your character glasses because they’re supposed to be smart. This makes them boring and predictable. Use appearance to break stereotypes. Would you expect a sweet old lady in her pink sweater and khakis to be a wrestling champion that could kick your butt any day of the week? I wouldn’t, but doesn’t that make her so much more interesting?

Take Baddie Winkle, for example. I'd much rather read a story about her than your average grandma. As a reader, I'd be hooked seeing her outfit described in a book. If you take anything away from this article, take away that we should all aspire to be Baddie Winkle. That woman has been "slaying since 1928."


Action is, perhaps, the best tool you can use for revealing character. How they act in certain situations shows the kind of people they are. Someone who is protective would not let someone they care about go investigate a strange noise. They would insist on joining them, even if they are unwanted. If you have created a 3-dimensional character, you should be able to throw them into any situation and know exactly how they would act. Not all characters will act the same. If there's a dead body in the middle of an empty classroom, one person may call 911 while the other sneaks it out for experimentation (this article does not support the experimentation of dead bodies). What would your character do if they discovered they forgot their wallet and couldn't pay for their meal? If you can't answer that, your character isn't built well enough.

Action can also show skill set. How a character acts in certain situations shows their capabilities. Always have a conflict or obstacle prepared to throw at them. How they do or don't get around it is revealing. That being said, keep the Maximum Capacity Concept, from How to Write a Damn Good Novel, in mind. This is the idea that your character should always be putting in their maximum effort. If they can be doing more or trying harder, they aren’t believable. They should have a big enough goal to where they have the motivation to push themselves their very hardest.

When putting these actions into text, be wary of author's convenience. Don’t just give a character an action because it furthers the story in the way you want. If it doesn’t fit their characteristics, then it isn’t believable. Readers will pick up on this. Every action should make sense with your character, even if it makes it harder to fit into your plot. I have a male protagonist in one of my books that is very protective. My main female protagonist hears a noise upstairs and decides to investigate, insisting the male protagonist not come with her. Originally, I had him comply and stay behind because it was important to the plot that my female protagonist find the bad guy in her room without anyone to help her fight him. My male protagonist is protective. It doesn't make sense that he'd stay behind, so I had to change that and have him insist on joining, even though it went against my original plot idea. However, I was still able to make it so my female protagonist faced the bad guy without my male protagonist. You can fashion your scene to fit what you want to happen while keeping your characters' characteristics intact.

Fuse these internal elements into your text using external elements, and you will have characters so well-crafted your readers will be convinced they're real. Some of the advice I gave in this article was taken from Stephen King's On Writing, James Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel, Michael Arnzen and Heidi Miller's Many Genres, One Craft, and Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation & Conflict. I recommend you read these for advice on writing characters and more. Till next time, nooksters!

#characters #writing #nooked #nook #book

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