Fleshing out characters (giving 3d characters four dimensions) is one of my favorite aspects of writing a story, perhaps more than weaving the plot. The human mind is complex, and in a story, every character is an outstanding individual, with their own story, dreams, hopes and fears. The possibilities are limitless, and I could spend all day uncovering the characters’ motivations, ideals, and inner workings.
Once the plot gets going, even complex 3d characters get busy with what’s going on around them, and are in danger of losing their personality quirks. When I’m writing through an exciting scene, I often forget that the characters wouldn’t act the way I would act. I have to go back and evaluate the scene, and whether they are acting true to character.
When that happens, I look over four dimensions of a character’s personality, to see if they are acting consistently throughout the story. These four dimensions can be determined at the beginning of a story, or infused at any point in time thereafter to bring out the best in your heroes.
Thoughts: The Hero’s Conscious Awareness
Your characters each have their own perspective on the world. Their upbringing, education level, and current situation shape their thoughts and consequently their actions. A well-to-do, college-educated attorney will think about the world far differently than an abused high school dropout. They will be concerned about different things, have a particular sense of right and wrong, and analyze problems in unique ways. They will also hold themselves and their companions to separate standards, praising and criticizing under various circumstances.
The most common way we look at an individual’s thoughts today is through left brain, right brain analysis. In general, characters who are left brained think logically and rationally, working through a situation step-by-step to its conclusion. Right brained folks look at life on a grander scale, working holistically and creatively to solve problems. You can really flesh out a character’s thought patterns by figuring out if she’s left or right brained, and how she approaches critical thinking.
Feelings: What His Heart Wants
In direct opposition at times to the hero’s thought processes are his emotional reactions to the world. Before his brain gets a chance to analyze, his heart will express his initial reaction to external stimuli. Your protagonist will obviously have feelings about all the other characters he meets, whether they are good, bad, or indifferent feelings. This will color his actions in how much he interacts with others, and in what ways.
However, people have feelings about everything in their lives, not just other humans. She may feel that she is on the wrong course of action, even when she cannot think of a reason why this is so. Known as gut reactions, following your intuition, or even psychic awareness, these feelings crop up consistently throughout our lives. Your character may feel like wearing a red shirt today, even though her blue shirt is clean too. She may despise her best friend’s brother, even though she just met him and knows nothing about him. These are all human feelings that can take your story and characters down exciting new paths.
Actions: How He Presents Himself to the World
Your protagonist shapes his world and his story via his actions, how he interacts with other people and his environment. Actions reveal a lot about a person’s character, illuminating his thoughts and feelings with a tip of his hat. If your character doesn’t act, he doesn’t progress through the story, and will have to be helped along by his companions.
Actions are the home of “show, don’t tell”, where your heroine can really stand out from the crowd. If she pulls over to help an injured animal along the side of the road, she will come across as compassionate and nurturing, even if no one else in the story recognizes that fact. If she stands firmly against every obstacle in her path, readers will come to the conclusion that she is headstrong, determined, and perhaps a little ruthless. Actions really do speak louder than words, amongst your characters and to your readers as well.
Relations: How He Interacts with Others
Your hero does not live in a vacuum. He has to deal with other people, and all of the things that we do in our daily lives. Work, home, school, society, religion, health, goals, and values shape your character continuously. He has to relate to and react to all of these environmental influences on a daily basis, with certain aspects taking precedence depending on the day’s events.
How your character relates to her environment can provide new insights you may not have considered. If your protagonist is a diligent worker, yet lives in a messy home, she obviously has different values about what is acceptable in different settings. At the beginning of the story, she may be a self-proclaimed atheist, yet is presented with many challenges to her faith throughout the story arc. Whether she lets herself relate to those challenges, or remains unchanged, will give readers a new perspective on her personality.
These four dimensions of a character’s personality will give you unlimited characterization ideas and plot possibilities. Your readers will easily relate when the characters think, feel, act, and relate to the world in ways that we all do each day. When your heroine seems dull, go over these four dimensions and see if she has the opportunity to show of her amazing self!
How do you ensure that your characters are fleshed out and believable? To what standard do you hold them accountable? What tricks do you use to bring out the best in your heroes?