If you’ve ever had trouble in creating a character that’s ‘three-dimensional’, then you are not alone. It is a common issue among writers, and it generally takes some real thought and analysis before characters feel realistic.
As a starting point, it may be worth taking personality traits from a few people you know and analysing them objectively, before combining them how you see fit to create a fictional character. For ‘fleshing out’ characters further, you may want to consider the following…
- Name: A character’s name, if well thought out, can be a very powerful tool to use in your writing. Names you choose for your characters should match their personalities and the roles they play in the story, or they may disrupt the narrative and distract the reader from the plot (for example, it may be difficult to imagine being as scared of a villain called ‘Jessie’ rather than one called ‘Maleficent’).
- Physical Description: Hair colour, eye colour, height, weight, scars, tattoos, and clothing are all part of our physical descriptions. These snippets of description can really help reinforce the character’s personality traits and attitude, so it might be best to figure out details about the characters personality before turning to focus on their physical appearance.
- Personality and abilities: No realistic character is black and white: we all have shades of blurry grey in our personalities, no matter how hard we may try to hide some aspects that we are a little ashamed of. So-called ‘villains’ can surprise the reader with flashes of honour and generosity, and heroes may occasionally sink lower than the villains in terms of honesty or morality. You must try to think: what are your characters’ most positive and negative aspects of their personality? Also consider their abilities, as these may influence how they behave in certain situations. For example, maybe the character wants to help someone, but it is beyond their ability to do so, and so despite their good intentions, other characters see them as a ‘villain’.
- Backstory: Backstory shapes the character’s personality, their thoughts and their emotions. This is your chance to tell the reader more about how the character came to be the way they are. Evil characters are probably not born evil… This is your chance to tell the story behind that growth. As Albus Dumbledore once said, (JK Rowling – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).
- Dialogue: Accent and dialect can be really helpful when trying to hint at a character’s background, and can subtly add to the backstory. For example, maybe the character has been brought up on an impoverished housing estate, and therefore he might speak in a non-standard ‘common’ dialect. Alternatively, perhaps the same character from the same background may have built himself up from his poor upbringing and wants to hide his past, so speaks with a standard upper-class dialect to try to climb yet further up the societal ladder.
- Goals: It has been said many times that a character’s goals drive the entire story; they are the motive behind the character’s actions and vital to the plot. This doesn’t mean that they have to be huge goals – you may be surprised at how far a small initial goal (such as getting a promotion, for example) can drive the plot forward.
- People in the character’s life: People surround most of us every day, and obviously play important roles in shaping our personalities and our lives. Think about the characters’ existing family and friends and also consider who they will meet over the course of the story. These people can be friends or even a nemesis (not necessarily a villain, as such, but the goals of the nemesis should interfere with your main character’s goals).
- How they relate to the world: Consider your character’s occupation, their views on the word, their daily routines, where they consider home, etc. All of these things will help to give your character substance and allow the reader to relate to them through their worldly views.