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How to write a three-dimensional character

Updated on June 13, 2013
Creating fictional characters requires going into the depths of your story.
Creating fictional characters requires going into the depths of your story.


When writing fiction, characters form the heart of your story. Without the characters, all you have is an interesting idea but no one to pursue it. As writers, we know that we need to have three-dimensional characters that our audience can enjoy and identify with. All writers struggle to create an in-depth character. Through trial and error, and reading writing advice books such as the Gothams Writer’s Workshop: Writing Fiction, I have devised a system for my important characters.

My system works for both “pantsers” and planners because you use the system when you feel you need it. You can choose to write down the information or simply file it away in your memory banks. Personally, I am an odd combination of both “pantser” and “planner.” I need to schedule my work ahead of time and consequently, need to have some idea of future chapters. I can’t create too much, however, or I lose interest in the story. It has taken me a long time to figure out how to balance between these two needs.

Step 1: Create a Concept

Basically, you need an idea of what this character acts like and how he or she appears. Think up or write out the characteristics of your character. What is his or her main motivation? What are his or her strengths and weaknesses? What will be his or her function in the story? With this question, you have to go a little deeper than just “she’s the main protagonist.” Is she a protagonist that the audience will emphasize with or be rooting against?

Who is your character?
Who is your character?

Step 2: Create a Character

You now have to flesh out your character with other details. I strongly recommend using a character sketch questionnaire for this section. It can help you find the questions you need to ask yourself. Always remember, however, that you chose the questions that matter. If the questionnaire you are using has questions that really don’t apply to this character; ignore them. It’s not assignment. You are doing your background work. Personally, I use the character questionnaire from Gothams Writer’s Workshop: Writing Fiction, which you can find at this web address

Step 3: Develop your Character

I know, you thought that was what the questionnaire was for. Writers need to develop their characters beyond the basics covered by a character sketch. You need to know more about your character than the character knows about herself. How does he/she speak? Does she have a limited vocabulary or an expanded vocabulary? Does he use words incorrectly? Does she like to hear herself talk or does she only speak in terse sentences? Who are her family? Does she know all of them? What “feel” does this character have for you as the writer?

I find that music helps me with this part of developing the character. I will find a piece of music or a song that reflects the character and then will listen to that piece of music as I am describing him or her. Later, when I am writing the story, I can listen to the same piece of music when I run into difficulty determining how the character would react.

Writers can use music to help identify characters while writing.
Writers can use music to help identify characters while writing.

Step 4: Write your Story

Step 4 doesn’t actually happen chronologically with the rest of the steps. You may have been writing the story before you decided to deepen your character. The step refers to the process of showing (not telling) your audience about your character. You have all of the information about what makes this character. The audience, however, only knows what you choose to show. How you show your character can have as much effect as how much effort you put into developing your character.


As a writer, you want your audience to deduce things about your character. If your character is shy, for example, don’t say “She’s shy.” Instead, show how she avoids large groups of people and only speaks in small sentences. Your audience wants your character to develop with the story. So don’t give them all the information at once. Otherwise, have fun with your characters and let them develop organically. Once you know your characters, you will understand how they will react and develop.


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