Do your characters leave you flat?

Not long ago I was talking to a friend about writing and he mentioned that though he was doing well with non-fiction, his fiction was problematic. Specifically he complained of two-dimensional and flat characters that failed to come to life.

A lot of writers are very good at creating characters and some even have a natural talent for creating, living, breathing, three-dimensional people without working up a sweat. While other writers have to apply all manner of life support in order to just get their characters to breathe on their own. Most of us are somewhere in between the two extremes. While not all stories are character driven, characters are an integral part of any story and the more real you can make your characters the more memorable your story will be. Following are a few tips for adding dimension to your characters:

  • It’s all in the details. Even in the sprawling acreage of a novel, you simply cannot slow the story down in order to fill in everything there is to know about a character. Rather it’s the details that you reveal about a character that tells the reader who he or she is. For example, rather than spending several paragraphs describing your character’s miserly ways, make him a lousy tipper, who uses coupons when dining out, and takes advantage of the endless bread basket or soda glass.
  • Keeping dialogue real. As a fiction writer you have an obligation to eavesdrop on others’ conversations, and spend inordinate amounts of time listening to people. Pay attention to regional accents and phrasing. Southerners speak differently than northerners. Sad people speak more slowly and insecure people may stutter. And while punctuation and proper grammar is important in prose, people rarely are grammatically correct when they speak. The point is, no two people speak exactly alike, neither should your characters.
  • Modeling characters after real people. While it’s probably not smart to use your mom or your cousin Elma as a character in your story, you could borrow a characteristic or two from them – a turn of phrase, a quirky habit. For example when I have a character who is on the crusty side I think of my dad. I don’t fashion the character after him but I think of his habits, phraseology, and what his responses would be to certain circumstances. It kind of puts in that universe where that type of character lives.
  • Physical descriptions. Many writers like to give a full physical description of a character, others give little to no physical description. Personally, I like to sprinkle the character’s physical description through dialogues, the viewpoint of other characters and in attributions. For example, “He trembled so violently that I thought his giant ears would begin flapping and take wing at any moment.”

No matter what your process I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri .The man was a veritable genius on characterization and his book could help any writer with character creation.

How about you? What is your process for creating three-dimensional characters?

Copyright 2011

2 thoughts on “Do your characters leave you flat?

  1. Thanks for posting this superbly written piece, Miss Writerchick!

    My author has been wanting to read that book by Lajos Egri, too. I’ll have to remind her (she’s currently in the sprawling acreage of her novels about me 😉

    Trudie Beth McAfee – Narrator HAVENWOOD TALES

    Hey Trudy,
    You tell Jan to get right on that. 😉 Glad you liked the piece.



  2. I detest round c haracters as a reader, and so I workj towards using only flat characters as a writer. No critique will ever be able to change my taste or style. Don’t like it—don’t read it.

    Yes, I agree – round characters take up so much room in a story, what with their bigger sizes. What’s your take on square and triangular characters? Personally, I’m still mulling that over.
    Writer Chick


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