Introduction to Making Your Characters Three Dimensional

» Posted on Apr 12, 2011 in Articles | Comments Off on Introduction to Making Your Characters Three Dimensional

I read an article not long ago where Linda Howard discussed what she had learned the most from writing in the romance genre. Her answer was characterization. Simply stated, if a reader doesn’t care about your characters no matter how great your plot may be you will lose that reader. I used to think plotting was the most important ingredient in a story. My thinking has changed over the years. It is characterization.

With that in mind this week we will be talking about how to make your character three dimensional, a fleshed out person whom your readers will care about. Not a perfect person because that would be boring but a hero with strengths and weaknesses you can use to develop that intriguing plot. Your conflict which is a large part of your plot will come from your characters’ strengths and weaknesses, motivations and goals.

Before we get to the different aspects of a three dimensional character, I want to emphasize the importance of really knowing your character before writing about him. When you write a character, become him as much as possible. When you go into his point of view, immerse yourself into his character–his beliefs, emotions, background, etc. If you can do this, there will be more emotional depth to your hero and he will come richly alive for your readers. Now we are ready to put layers on our character we are developing. Think of this layering as making the character three dimensional, someone the reader will want to reread again and again.


Physical Description

It is the first aspect of making your character three dimensional. You have total control over how your character will look so use his features to emphasize the image you want to project.

For example, In Gold in the Fire, my October 2004 Love Inspired, this is the way I describe how Darcy sees Joshua for the first time. “The sound of a deep, husky voice floated to her from the swirls of gray smoke and fog. Her eyes stung as she searched the yard. Emerging from the shroud of heavy mist appeared a man, dressed in a black jacket with yellow strips and black pants. He removed his fire helmet and cradled it under his arm. Dark brown hair, damp from sweat, lay at odd angles. Black smudges highlighted the hard angles of his face and emphasized the blueness of his eyes. For just a moment Darcy thought of a warrior striding purposefully toward her.”

The point I want to make is not to throw a bunch of physical features together. Think about what you want to communicate to the reader and use the physical description of your character to convey that.

When coming up with your physical description of your character, remember everything that it should encompass: age, appearance (hair, eyes, skin, body type), the sound of his voice, mannerisms, how he walks, how he talks (slow, fast), does he use his hands when he talks. With mannerisms the character should have some that he does when he’s angry, happy, sad. Perhaps he paces when he’s angry or when he’s nervous he rubs his fingers together. These mannerisms can become character tags for your character. The reader will know he’s angry or nervous without you having to say it. And remember when you are describing your character, put emotions into the description, not simply what his hair color is or his eye color.

With features you can even use the opposite of what the character really is. For example a warrior/fighter wearing glasses. We tend to think of nerds or more serious, studious characters wearing glasses. I write a lot of alpha males with dark hair but you can use a California type man with blonde hair to add contrast to your physical description.

Not only should you describe the character but things like what he likes to eat, how he eats (does he bolt his food or savor it). Also where does he live? How does it look? Is he messy or neat? Does he live in an apartment or a mansion? What’s the state of his health like? All these things help a reader to get a feel for who your character is. Remember to go beyond just a simple physical description, and when describing him through another character’s eyes, put the emphasis on the features you want to play up–I’ll call these physical tags. It could be a scar, a limp, a dimple–any number of things.



The past–your character’s background–is very important in molding who he is today. Where was he born? Lived most of his life? Is he from a small town or a big city? That will make a difference in your character’s outlook on life. Did he grow up in a family, foster care? What is his birth order–oldest, youngest in his family? What kind of environment did he grow up in–a nurturing home or a home where he got little love?

From all the question in the above paragraph you can see how essential it is to have a clear picture of your character’s background (childhood, teenage years). So much of what we are is formed during those times. Our dreams and fears develop then. I have to admit this is where I go first when coming up with a character and deciding what his goals, motivations and conflicts will be.

We’ve all seen the stories where we pit a city bred character against a country bred one because the differences are there to play off of. We’ve also seen a character who is street smart played off of a character who has a doctorate in something. Again all this comes from their background.

One of the biggest aspects of a person’s background that will shape him is his family so when coming up with your character really decide what kind of family he grew up in. Small family? Big? Loving? Cold? There are so many things you can do with this that his family life can be a big area to draw your goals, motivations and conflicts from.

For example: In SADIE’S HERO, my third Love Inspired book, my hero had a rough childhood. When he was young, he lost his family in a fire which he witnessed and had to stand helplessly by and watch everything he loved go up in flames. Then he was raised in foster families (many) where he caused problems. This made him driven to succeed at all costs which was one of the major issues in SADIE’S HERO. He became a workaholic, determined to make it to the top in the company he worked for to the exclusion of everything else. You can see how his background could be used for developing my plot in the book.

Think about one of your characters whom you are writing in your current book. Take a look at his background and make sure it is fully developed. The more it is the easier it will be to come up with your character’s goals, motivations and conflicts.


Belief System

What holds a character together is his belief system. There are many aspects to this system. Spiritual, worldly, and self are the three I will cover today. The first is spiritual and comes from his religious background often, but not necessarily. Does your character believe in God? The Bible? The power of prayer? If not, what does he believe spiritually and why? What has led to these beliefs? In my Love Inspired books this aspect of a character is explored deeply. Inspirational romances have several important elements and faith is one of those. Your character’s religious beliefs will shape him throughout the book and govern his actions. A book doesn’t have to be an inspirational one to have this a part of the story.

The way your character views the world is important to making him three dimensional. Is the character cynical? Does he believe in war? In peace? Animal rights? The environment? What does he think about getting a good education? About money? There are so many aspects to the world around us and when we are developing the character, we must know where he stands. This will come up often in his conversations with others throughout the book. It will also come up in the way he deals with different people. A person who is cynical will deal with the world a lot differently than someone who sees the world through rose colored glasses.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the character’s belief system is how he views himself. What are his virtues? What does he value about himself above all else? Is honesty most important? Honor? Those are positive traits, but a person can also know what his faults are. Usually a character is not only aware of the good things about himself, but the traits that need to be changed. If he doesn’t, hopefully the journey through your story will show him that and his growth as he learns to deal with his character flaw will be part of the plot line. Is he too proud? Is control important to him? Does he have to have everything his way? Self esteem/self worth is important when developing a main character such as a heroine or hero. Our protagonist will often have a good self concept, but sometimes we can use the way he looks at himself to show the character growing, changing into someone who is stronger, more sure of himself. In my April 2005 book, LIGHT IN THE STORM, the hero has to grapple with his self image after his wife’s death, his high school sweetheart who he loved very much. He’s a minister who has lost his way with God and isn’t sure how to rediscover his faith. The book is about his journey.


Hobbies and Interests

We can’t neglect what hobbies or interests are characters have. They shape a person’s life. I love to read books and often spend time reading. The books I read tell a lot about me. The same with a character we have in a book. Someone once said look at a person’s books to see what type of person he is which I think is true to a certain extent. Of course, if you look at mine, you will see such titles as DEADLY DOSES, MURDER ONE and other books about how to kill a person and believe me I only kill off my characters in my books. But the books really do tell about me–after all, I am a writer.

I’ve seen books that play on a character’s interests and often these are reflected in a conversation. Also, any special kind of talent is important. I’ve had characters who could sing and were in a chorus. Others might be painters. In my October 2005 book, THE CINDERELLA PLAN, the fact that my heroine is a closet painter who doesn’t display her work or show anyone is an important aspect of her character development. By the time the story is over she has not only shown the hero her paintings but given him one which he treasures for the huge step it is for the heroine in trusting him.

So when you think of your characters today, think about their belief systems and what hobbies, interests or talents they have that make them special and you can use in your story. What are some of the hobbies, interests and talents you have used in your stories for your characters?



Most of our characters have a career. This can be built up in a book or played down, depending on what is needed for your story. A soldier will know certain things an accountant usually won’t know. A policeman may react differently in a situation than a doctor. When developing what career your hero will have make sure it will support the plot. If he is called on to do certain things in the story, he should have the expertise or the story will become unbelievable. Also, how the character talks will often depend on his career choice. A policeman’s jargon is different from a college professor of biology.

Often a career is what brings the hero and heroine together. Example: In GOLD IN THE FIRE, my October Love Inspired, Joshua was the arson expert for his fire department and the heroine’s barn was torched. That’s the way they met. In THE POWER OF LOVE, my first Love Inspired, the hero was the police chief who brought the heroine’s son home when her son skipped school.

A person’s career choice can project a certain image you may want to carry throughout the book. Example: In LIGHT IN THE STORM, my April 2005 Love Inspired, the hero is a minister. That profession will govern how he acts, especially in a small town.

In each of these professions certain types of people are attracted to the professions in the first place. A police officer usually approaches life differently from a minister. A soldier will react differently than an accountant.

Here, I might add, you can use his career to project a facade at certain times, and yet underneath that, is the real character. One of the best examples of that is Indiana Jones. He’s a professor of archaeology at a college, giving boring lectures to a bunch of students, and yet many times his life is one adventure after another–not what you think of a college professor and someone who digs in the dirt for clues to the past. Of course, I think the character of Indiana Jones has changed how we look at archaeologists.


Matters of the Heart

Since we write love stories, it is important to know about your characters’ past loves. But not just who they dated, married, but what happened to each of those relationships. Using the past relationships with the opposite sex to develop goals, motivations and conflicts is another good area for the writer to look at. Let’s face it. We are affected by what has happened in our past with our love life. If we are burned too many times and the amount of times will be different with each person, there will come a time when we will stop looking for love. As writers we can use this to our advantage and develop some juicy conflicts.

I will note here the past relationship doesn’t always have to be a bad one to be used by a writer. In my current romantic suspense that I’m writing for Love Inspired’s new line, my hero loved his wife, and when she died, a part of him died, too. He doesn’t want to open himself up for that kind of hurt ever again. Whereas in another book, A MOTHER FOR CINDY, my January 2005 Love Inspired, my hero’s marriage had been so bad that he swore he would never marry again.

How involved is your character’s past love life? Do you need to go back in and shore it up to make the conflicts in your story more believable?


Hopes (Goals)

What does your character want the most and why? That is what his hopes and goals will revolve around. And of course, as a plot device you as the writer want to throw roadblocks in your character’s way so he doesn’t easily obtain those goals. In my March 2004 book, A FAMILY FOR TORY, my heroine hoped to keep her therapeutic riding stable for special needs people from going bankrupt whereas my hero in that story needed to find good, reliable help to watch his special needs daughter when he was at work.

Later in this book their hopes and goals (another word can be dreams) changed as they so often do in books. Tory hoped to heal from her past while Slade wished he could forgive himself. As you can see knowing your character’s hopes is essential to developing the plot. So take a moment and think of the book you are working on. What are the hopes for each of your main characters? If you can’t come up with them, then you need to stop and decide what they are. Without them your story will fall flat because everyone has dreams.


Drive (Motivation)

In Dwight Swain’s CREATING CHARACTERS he states that the most important factor a character must have is he has to care about something. Something must drive him to do what he does. This is closely tied to the character’s hopes and dreams. This drive will enable the reader to empathize with your character and care what happens to him. As Dwight Swain puts it, “caring is the core of a character.” So what does your character care about above all else?

There are a lot of things that motivate a character to do what he does. The most important thing when choosing a motivation for your main characters is to make sure it makes sense to the readers and that it ties in with their goals. Motivations and goals are intertwined throughout a story. What drives a character stems from his fears and even from what he is keeping a secret. His motivation and goals are developed by his past. His motivation is what is pushing him toward the goal he set for himself. You can do a lot of things with your character if your motivation is strong enough. If you establish a good, strong motivation, readers will buy many things that they normally wouldn’t in a story–example, Robin Hood. He is a thief, not particularly a heroic occupation, and yet we cheer him on because of his motivation to feed and protect the common, oppressed people of his country. The same can be said of Zorro. What a dashing hero, but again he is a thief. We are taught early on that stealing is wrong. So when building a motivation that drives your character hopefully toward his goal, make sure you put a lot of thought into what you want and then justify it to the reader.

Again go back into that story you are working on and make sure that your main characters each have goals and motivations. These can change as the book progresses and often do to show the growth in your characters. Make the goals and motivations sympathetic, something that the reader can connect to.


Secrets (Lead to Conflict)

Secrets can be so delicious and really add to a story. Everyone has secrets–whether it is desires, things they don’t want others to know about them. The secret should tie into the plot of the story. It often will be what the plot revolves around. Don’t develop a secret without using it. Again when coming up with a secret a writer goes back to the character’s background–what made him what he is today.

Example: IN A FAMILY FOR TORY, my March 2004 Love Inspired, the hero was driving the car when it wrecked killing his wife and injuring his daughter permanently. This wasn’t something he let people know. He didn’t tell the heroine who he had married until they had been married a while. That one secret drove his characterization and how he dealt with life.

So have fun and come up with something one of the characters is desperate to keep from the others. Secret baby story lines are popular because readers like the idea of a big secret being withheld from other people.


Fears (Conflict)

This is a good aspect to use to make your character three dimensional. Everyone has fears even our brave heroes and heroines. As writers we want them to have fears because fears lead to internal and even external conflicts. Conflict is what drives your story forward. Without it the story will stall and die–not a pretty sight, especially if we have invested many hours in writing the story to that point. The plot comes from the characters and their conflicts and fears. These characters have to grow and change which comes from dealing with their conflicts and fears. This should be a gradual change. A sudden one won’t be believable.

Again anything is possible so long as it makes sense with everything else you have developed in the book. Fears stem from a character’s background (as does his goals and motivations). Without fears a character won’t seem human. Fears and conflicts are what can give your character flaws and vulnerability–make your reader root for him. A perfect character, as I said earlier, would be boring. There are a lot of fears to draw on: fear of intimacy, lack of control, exposure (ties in with secrets), being alone, making a fool of himself, commitment. I think you can get the picture. This will be the meat of your story–where the drama will come in.

In GOLD IN THE FIRE, my October 2004 Love Inspired, Joshua fears being hurt again because he was left at the altar. You see how I used something in his past to develop his fear. As I develop a character’s background, I keep that in mind. Fears don’t come out of the blue with no basis for them. The same with flaws. There should be a reason a flaw is there and there should be a flaw.


That is why it is so important to know your characters well and possibly even do a sketch on them. If you don’t write your characterizations down, at least know them intimately in your mind. On my web site ( I have a character sketch you can use to help to flesh out your characters. Please use it if you want. And if you don’t know everything about one of your characters when you start to write your book, that’s okay, too. Believe me, they will speak up, sometimes totally surprising you. Good luck with your characterizations and your story. Your plot comes from your characters so take some extra time to develop them well.