Tips on Writing 3-Dimensional Characters, Part II

In my last post on writing, “Tips on Writing 3-Dimensional Characters, Part 1,” I talked about thinking through character motivations and what they want. I left off with the question of why they want what they want. Why do they want to control the galaxy? Why do they want to solve murders? Why do they want that mortgage loan to come through? If we really want to start wading into things, why do they want a turkey sandwich more than a hot dog or a salad?

Only you as the writer can know the answer to these kinds of things, but it’s important to think through them. Just as no main character or side character acts without some type of motivation, these motivations should seem grounded in something that’s not just from the character’s core personality, but also potentially by their history (just like real humans, characters should be shaped by both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’). After seeing 500 years of bloody intergalactic war, a character might think that controlling all parties would finally bring peace, and end up saving lives in the long-term balance. Another might solve murders because an unsolved murder touched them directly (as in the television show Castle), to atone for something in their own past, or because they love the puzzle of it. And why turkey sandwiches? Maybe that’s the easiest thing to grab in the fridge and they’re in a hurry. Maybe they have a routine that turkey sandwiches have to be their lunch every weekday. It’s up to you!

Before you run up against every critical and non-critical decision in your character’s life, I find it helpful to make a character sketch of what makes them tick. This starts with a few sample questions I’ll list below on the ‘nurture’ side of things, but always also goes into what the character wants, as I described in the earlier post. Sometimes, a character’s past will create those wants before I even get to that step. With Bryna in THE EMPIRE’S ORPHANS, wanting financial stability and the safety that brings came easily from how uncertain her life had been up to the start of the book. It’s also all right to think backwards though, and I often do this with side characters. If someone’s embezzling something, I want to be sure that they’re not just a criminal. There should be a reason why they feel justified doing what they’re doing, whether it’s from desperation, revenge, or another rationale entirely.

So without further ado, here is a list of loose starter questions you might try in a character sketch. Not all questions apply to all characters, this is just a sampler!

  • What was the character’s childhood like? Stable, unstable? Loving, mixed, or survival of the fittest?
  • Who were the important figures in their early life? Are they still in touch with anyone from their early years?
  • What reminds them of childhood now?
  • What relationships are most important to them now?
  • What type of education did they have?
  • What is the most traumatic thing that ever happened to them? What is their happiest memory?
  • What did they expect to do or achieve in life, and how close to that expectation is their life now?
  • What do they feel is the most important lesson they’ve learned in life?
  • How much of their day to day life is about needs (e.g. food, shelter, safety), and how much is it about wants (e.g. nice clothes, popularity, designer coffee)? Has it always been this way?
  • What’s one thing they’ve lost that they’d love to recover?

After asking some origin questions and thinking through not only what your character wants but why they want it, you should have a good start on some layers to your character’s personality. There is absolutely more you can do, but after rinsing and repeating this process for my main character and major side characters, this is usually the point where I feel ready to start experimenting with characters in scene and seeing how things go. As more characters come along, or as the plot rolls out, I may revisit some of these layers later.

Best of luck with your own character creations!

My First Live Author Q&A: The Recap

My reading at the Davies Memorial Library in Waterford, VT this past Tuesday was great fun! I read from the first chapter of The Empire’s Orphans, doing my best to channel the wonderful authors who’ve come before me. After the first chapter was read, the night then moved into a Q&A session with my audience, who had thoughtful, truly terrific questions. In case you missed it, a sample of these questions are below!

Q: If you were to pick a time from our history of when The Empire’s Orphans takes place, when would it be? Why did you pick that time?

A: I set The Empire’s Orphans in 1530, albeit with magic and geography that I made from scratch. My reasoning for this was based on wanting to give one of my cultures a significant technological advantage over the other, and, after seeing the documentary Guns, Germs and Steel years ago, I settled on firearms, along with a different system of magic, as this advantage. By setting my timeframe at the early development of firearms, I hoped to keep this tech advantage somewhat in check, and to keep the muskets a little bit mysterious with their high volatility. Once I settled on 1530 for my firearms, I also loosely based other details, like Solinski clothing, on what might have been expected in Europe at that time.

Q: I like the level of detail that you use in this book. It gives the reader, especially this age group, enough information without bogging them down in paragraphs about basket weaving. As you’re finding this balance while you write, do you typically have to add detail, or cut it? Or does this come naturally?

A: Occasionally I hit a detail balance I’m happy with on the first try, but it’s pretty rare. I usually need to add details in as I’m editing, to give some action details to a section of dialogue, or visual details as characters are traveling. In my first drafts, my conversations can feel a bit like they’re floating, because they’re not always grounded enough in non-dialogue interactions or details of what’s happening around the people as they’re talking. I also have to work at letting readers ‘see’ the countryside or cityscapes around them, and fight the fear that readers don’t want to break from the action long enough to take in that kind of visual detail.

Q: Do you tend to see things in your mind’s eye as you write, or is it more distant as you’re writing the story down?

A: I see most of the book in my mind’s eye as it’s happening. Often I’ll see certain scenes many times before I ever get to writing them down, and they play out in my head a little like a play that I’ve cast myself in. I’ve done this with stories for as long as I can remember—it was always a great source of entertainment on long bus rides to school, or during chores like feeding calves. Fortunately my mom didn’t find my frequently-glazed expression too alarming while I was growing up.

Seeing this kind of play is one of the reasons I need to add detail in later, I think, because I see the world I’m writing pretty clearly, and I can assume the reader does too. Later, in the editing, things feel less like a play and get a little bit more scientific as I’m balancing pacing, weighing my subplots, etc.

Q: Was it difficult to write this in first person? Do you prefer first or third?

I didn’t find The Empire’s Orphans difficult to write in first, but I have found first person limiting in the past, particularly with the first book I wrote while I was in high school and college (this book is now in a drawer). My decision to write Star Thief in 3rd person was directly based on that experience. When I began the framework for The Empire’s Orphans, though, I decided that it needed to be in first because I wanted to be able to explore internal arcs of feelings, biases, and reevaluating what the characters know to be true. Particularly for Rogan, I saw this as important enough to try the first person perspective again, and I’m happy with that choice.


If you have any other questions yourself, please don’t hesitate to reach out through the site! I’d love to hear from you!

Author Reading In Waterford, VT

My debut author reading is coming up in just a couple of weeks! Readers and writers of all ages are invited to the Davies Memorial Library in Waterford on April 3rd at 6:30pm for a reading and Q&A. The night will start with a reading from my YA fantasy novel THE EMPIRE’S ORPHANS, and then shift into a discussion with readers and aspiring writers on the process of creating the novel and advice for writers working on their own projects. I’ll also be offering refreshments made with my own two hands. RSVPs on Facebook are very much appreciated!

Read more about THE EMPIRE’S ORPHANS!



Old Themes, Modern Books

I’m always fascinated to see how often common themes are shared across literature and through history, back to Greek tragic plays. I don’t often read true “literature” for pleasure, (my favorite class in high school was history, and my patience for James Joyce is limited), but I was still very struck by this recent article at the Literary Hub, “10 Books To Read By Living Women (Instead Of These 10 By Dead Men)” by Emily Temple. I don’t have any problem with reading books by dead authors, some of whom are terrific, but it is wonderful to find new writers! It’s also a sad truth of English class that a lot of traditional “literature” is written by men (usually white men), so the perspectives it offers can be unbalanced. “10 Books To Read By Living Women” gives a great set of suggestions for newer books written by women, with parallel themes to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Moby Dick, Infinite Jest, and 7 others. Check it out!

Tips On Writing 3-Dimensional Characters: Part 1

What makes a character feel like a person? This is a question I’ve heard from many beginning writers. It’s not easy to make up a whole human being for a story. People are complicated. We’re multilayered, we have emotions, we have quirks and bits of ourselves that might not always seem consistent. We don’t always speak in grammatically correct sentences.

While I’ve taken some terrific writing classes, where I learned the most about developing characters was in an acting class. In this class I learned very clearly that everyone has some sort of motivation at all times. These motivations create actions that are visible to the audience of a play or movie. No one walks across a stage for no reason. There’s always a purpose behind it. That person wants something, and they’re working to get it.

What the character wants might be momentary motivations like being hungry, (visible action: make a sandwich), or they might be more over-arching motivations, like wanting to become the world’s best surgeon (action: go to med school, but also self-discipline yourself to work and study and save on the path to getting you there), or wanting revenge (action: kill that person who killed your father, but again, there’s also the planning and behaviors that get you to that point). Motivations might also be less tangible, like seeking a parent’s approval, or a sense of belonging, or redemption.

Thinking through what your characters want, both in the moment as they make themselves breakfast, and in the long-term as they interact with other characters and plan their actions, is my first advice to writers thinking about how to create believable, relatable characters. What actions would a redemption-seeking character use to convey that goal if they’re in a room with the person they’re begging forgiveness from? What about when they’re in the room with a friend who still thinks well of them? What about a passing stranger? Or, if a stranger starts chatting a protagonist up on the bus, the writer should think about why they’re doing that. Are they lonely? Are they bored? Are they nervous and trying to distract themselves? If someone were watching this in a play, what physical cues would they see that give a hint of that stranger’s motivations?

If it can be seen in a play, it can be written in a book.

Thinking through motivations helps writers avoid side characters who seem to float in and out without purpose, and it gives energy to protagonists’ actions that helps drives the story forward.

Now, where do those motivations come from? Why was my protagonist’s father murdered, and why does she still want vengeance? Thinking through backstory is part of what I’ll touch on in future posts. Stay tuned!