Friday, Aug 10, 2012

Friday Fix (Craft): Creating Characters in 3-D

Creating compelling characters is not something that happens by chance. There is a process we can follow as writers that will help us create characters our readers will remember long after they read the last page of our stories. What is this process and how can we apply it to our fiction-writing? 

The process is one that considers three specific dimensions of characterization: surface, soul, and spirit. I call it the 3-D Characterization Process whereby we address the three critical dimensions of every character to create a profound and lasting connection between your character and your reader. 

I first came across this process in Larry Brooks’ insightful book entitled Story Engineering. Brooks describes the three dimensions as follows: 

Dimension 1: Surface Traits, Quirks, and Habits

Dimension 2: Backstory and Inner Demons

Dimension 3: Action, Behavior, and Worldview 

While Brooks uses different terminology from mine, the process is similar. Let’s briefly look at each one: 

• Dimension 1: This is the first step in creating a character. In this step, we present the exterior, or surface, traits of our character. These include the character’s physical appearance and mannerisms—things we can readily see. At this point, the reader doesn’t have much, if any, empathy for the character, although the reader has begun to form certain assumptions about the character. 

 • Dimension 2: This is the second step in creating a character. In this step, we reveal the reasons for our character’s behavior—reasons we cannot readily see but must dig more deeply in order to see. We do this through backstory that includes the motivation behind the surface appearance. I call this dimension the soul dimension.   

For example, in Dimension 1, we present a middle-aged man who drives around in a flashy red sports car. We see only his outward appearance (the surface), and we make certain assumptions about him. We may think he is having a midlife crisis, or he simply hasn’t grown up yet. But the truth may be neither one of those reasons. 

But in Dimension 2, we give a bit of backstory showing that our character was very poor growing up and always wanted to own a sports car. Now, at age 42, he can afford to buy one. He’s worked hard and is now reaping the fruit of his labors. At this point, we are beginning to have some empathy for our character because we have begun to see his soul

• Dimension 3: This is the third step in creating a character. In this step, we get to the core of who our character really is. I like to describe it as “the character’s character”. (Have you ever wondered why we use the term “character” to describe a person in our stories?) 

For example, our character has worked hard and earned enough money to buy a sports car. We like him for his accomplishment. But now, in Dimension 3, we watch as he drives his brand new sports car to his Dad’s house. We learn that our character plans to give the sports car to his father for his Dad’s 65th birthday. His Dad has always wanted a sports car but could never afford one. Suddenly, we discern our character’s character, and we love him for it. As you can see, Dimension 3 puts a whole new spin on our character. It reveals his spirit or his heart–the truth about who he really is. 

As you create your own characters, keep the 3-D Characterization Process in mind. You will find that your characters will begin to jump off the pages of your story. It will be as though your readers are wearing 3-D glasses and will be able to see your characters in all their amazing fullness. 

To learn more about the three dimensions of characterization, check out Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Also, please let me know how you fare as you apply the 3-D Characterization Process to your own writing.


Source cited: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Writer’s Digest Books (Cincinnati, OH: 2011). Print.
Source photo: Microsoft Clipart.

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17 thoughts on “Friday Fix (Craft): Creating Characters in 3-D

  1. Thanks for spelling out what I needed to read in print.
    The three dimensions, sometimes get smeared together…confusing the reader.
    Great advice and instruction…feel free to add more.


    August 10, 2012 7:11 PM

  2. There are so many ways to look at character and I am always interested in reading them. I really like this 3-d look. Thank you MaryAnn. I’m going to print this one off!

    August 10, 2012 7:18 PM

    • You’re most welcome, Debra! 🙂 I’m so happy you found my post useful. Thanks very much for commenting.



      August 10, 2012 7:28 PM

  3. Thank you, MaryAnn, for the most helpful advice on creating a character that jumps off the pages.I will apply the “three dimensions” approach as I write.
    Pat Davis

    August 11, 2012 12:04 PM

  4. I quite like this approach: clean and simple. It’s been my experience so many times with books or advice on characterization tends to become a bit too complex. Seems more like this way you get to the characters and the part they play in your story, not every single nuance that may have no importance whatsoever. Nice!

    August 11, 2012 12:15 PM

    • Thank you, Jon, for your comments. I too find the 3-D approach to be, as you said so well, a “clean and simple” one. I’m delighted you found it helpful.



      August 11, 2012 3:04 PM

  5. MaryAnn; I love this idea and innovative method; I think it will help in creating and endowing characters on the page. Thank you, as always!

    August 11, 2012 4:16 PM

    • Thank you for your comment, dear Skye. Please let me know how you fare using the 3-D approach to creating characters. I think you will find it as helpful as I have.



      August 11, 2012 4:59 PM

  6. Thank you for crystalizing the intricate process of creating living, breathing, feeling, believable characters. This is a great check list that simplifies characterization when it feels overwhelming.

    August 12, 2012 5:11 AM

    • You are most welcome, Sara. I’m delighted you can use my post as a check list for creating great characters. 🙂

      Happy Writing!


      August 12, 2012 5:24 PM