How to Make Your Characters Three-Dimensional

The last time I was in New York City I had flat Stanley with me. Do you know who he is? He’s a little guy drawn on a 12″ x 8″ piece of paper that has been cut out and colored. My first grade granddaughter, Alanna, had asked me to take Stanley to NYC and show him the sites and share what he saw with her class. The idea was to educate first graders about different parts of the world.

Stanley was a real trooper and went everywhere with us, posing for pictures in various locations. I planned to make a scrapbook for Alanna’s class of Stanley’s adventures when we returned. But when we got to the top of the Empire State Building, a gust of wind swept him out of my hand and he floated away over the top of the bustling city.

One-dimensional characters in our stories do that, too. They float out of reader’s minds. They’re flat, boring and foregetable.

So, how do you make your characters different than Stanley, more three-dimensional?

Think of a chair. It has length and width, but it also has depth. There are many sides to it and it looks different depending on the angle you’re looking at it. Just like this chair, people, and your characters, have different dimensions and angles. And their look will differ depending on who is doing the looking.

According to Schaum’s Quick Guide to WRITING GREAT SHORT STORIES, characters have three dimensions: PHYSICAL, SOCIOLOGICAL, and PSYCHOLOGICAL.

  • PHYSICAL – This is your character’s appearance. How does she look? Delve deeper into how she dresses, her size and shape of her body, her style, the way she carries herself.
  • SOCIOLOGICAL – This is her name or nickname, her age and heritage. Where she lives and what kind of education she’s had. It’s her cultural and ethnic background and how these have shaped her. What’s her attitude about who she is and what her culture mandates? Does she have sisters, brothers or parents in her life? What is her relationship with them? How do they influence her? Are they speaking to each other? Is there love between them or resentment? Why? What’s her occupation, religion and political beliefs? Who will she vote for in the next election and why?
  • PSYCHOLOGICAL – Does she see the glass half empty or half full? What’s her temperament and how does she view the world? Use the Myers and Briggs personality test. Is she an introvert or extrovert? Does she stutter, what are her talents? What is she good at? What ticks her off and how does she respond to stress? Does she freak out or withdraw? What’s her fondest dream and her worst fear? Does she resent authority? What are her habits? Is she OCD, a sloppy housekeeper? What would be her perfect day? Does she have a speech impediment? Is she suspicious of others? Quick to anger? What does she think of herself and others? Does she view herself as others do? Is she funny?
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into making a character three-dimensional. Should you include all of these traits and list them in your novel? No, but it helps to know your character so you can make her come alive on the page. Some people make a list of these character traits so when they’re writing about the person they KNOW her well. It helps them SEE her. They keep a binder full of their research about her life. Find what works for you.

Back to Stanley–in case you want to know: I didn’t disappoint my granddaughter. I bought paper, crayons and scissors in downtown NYC and created another Stanley. I put him in the scrapbook of his journey and Alanna never knew the difference. The new Stanley was just as cooperative as the first.

What helps you make your characters more THREE-DIMENSIONAL?

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  1. Robin says:

    I love these things to think about. It makes it so much easier to write when we know our characters well. 🙂

  2. I remember when my kids did Flat Stanley! Great comparison for a great article 🙂

  3. Michelle says:

    Hi Lori!
    I was really scrambling when Flat Stanley blew away. I can still picture him floating in the wind. Ha.
    Thanks for stopping by and reading my post today.

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