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!