The Fiction-Writing Workshop: Creating Three-Dimensional Characters

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

You know a well-developed character when you read one, don’t you? It’s the one that you chatter on about to your friends as if she were a living, breathing human being. The one about whom you find yourself saying things like, “Oh my, is she nuts? I can’t believe ______ did that. What’s going to happen to her now?” The one you obsess about at the office, longing for the workday to end so you can curl up on a subway seat and get back to the book. A character like Liesel in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, who haunts you so much that in the middle of the night you pull out the book, click on your Itty Bitty Book light, and read until dawn.

How do you create a character that sticks with readers and makes them want to keep coming back for more?

1.    Start with who you know (but good gracious, don’t get stuck there), Lots of writers base characters on people they know, and why not? We’re surrounded by quirky, lovely, interesting people whose personalities and habits are ripe for the picking. So, yes, use the folks in your life to get started on characters, but allow yourself to veer away from the real-life models when it feels right to do so. (For example, if you base a character on Uncle Ted with the kooky hair and the tendency to scratch his chin when he senses trouble, endow your character with those qualities and move on. As your mother would say, one Uncle Ted is enough.)

2.    Wreak havoc and see how your characters react. Yup, havoc. Let it roar. A flood? Great. A job loss? Terrific. The death of a secret lover? Oooh, tantalizing. There’s no better way to find out what your characters are made of than by throwing them into a stressful situation in which something dear is at risk and seeing how they react. (Take a look at Trudy Liang’s responses when the Japanese invade Hong Kong in Janice Y. K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher.)

3.    Create human beings (not robots). I don’t know about you, but all the human beings I know are complicated, emotional, multi-faceted, and somewhat flawed in both charming and not-so-charming ways, and when I read a character in a book that is as complex as one of these living, breathing human beings, I feel deeply connected to the story. David Crouse, author of two short story collections-Copy Cats and The Man Back There-is a master of creating three-dimensional characters so real you feel like you met them at a party last Friday. Check out Anthony in “Kopy Cats” (the title story in Copy Cats); you’ll see what I mean.

With all this information about creating lively characters fresh in your brain, set to work on your own characters. Are they well rounded? Will they make readers feel something? Will they make readers come back for more?

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