Characterization: How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters in Fiction

All right, here comes my confession. During my early writing years, when I began writing fiction, I struggled with creating believable characters, particularly female characters.

Olivia d’Haviland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. The novel was written by Rafael Sabatini.

I erred in numerous ways, and it took me many years and much practice to hone my skill. Yet even as I write this, I’m still learning and honing. For me, of all the elements of fiction, good fiction, characterization is the hardest.

When characters are well-written, they’re three-dimensional. They seem to leap off the page. This doesn’t just happen, though. It takes lots of thought, lots of planning, and lots of mental “elbow grease.”

One key to creating these “living, breathing” characters is by getting to know them. Who are they? What motivates them to do what they do? Are their motives believable? What are their likes and dislikes? Where were they born? How old are they? What level of education do they have? Where were they educated? What events in their past influenced how they now behave? These are just a few questions we must ask when drawing our characters with words.

We don’t have to answer every question in our story, but knowing our characters’ backgrounds and what makes them tick is crucial if we want them to be three-dimensional instead of cardboard cutouts.

What’s the best way to get to know them? Write their biographies.

Must we write a biography of every character, major and minor? We can, but I’d concentrate on the major characters.

Is there a short way to do this? Yes, though it’ll still require some thought. First write a list of important questions about your characters, then go back and answer them. This will start you on the right road toward toward getting to know them.

These character questions also help us keep our story consistent throughout it. For instance, if we’re writing about a character named Mary and we forget her eye color, we can refer back to the “Mary Bio Questions” to find it.

A Few Questions for Our Characters

  1. Birthplace:
  2. Age:
  3. Nationality/Race:
  4. Height:
  5. Weight:
  6. Physical Build:
  7. Eye color:
  8. Hair color/Hairstyle:
  9. Shape of face:
  10. Father’s name/Occupation:
  11. Mother’s name/Occupation:
  12. Education:
  13. Religion:
  14. Personality:
  15. Admirable traits:
  16. Negative traits:
  17. Likes/Dislikes:
  18. Bad habits/vices
  19. Best thing that ever happened to them:
  20. Worst thing that ever happened to them:

This list, of course, can be expanded, and it’s something I recommend. If you haven’t already done so, try it. It’s well worth the effort and, in the long run, saves time on revision.

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