A Few Handy Tips for Creating Three-Dimensional Characters

January 13, 2018

I’ve been invited to give a talk (and conduct a workshop) about writing fiction at a local writers’ conference in Chattanooga on January 20. Over the years, from crafting my own fiction as well as editing other people’s manuscripts, I’ve learned a thing or three about creating realistic characters.

When writing fiction – whether your particular vehicle of choice is flash fiction, short stories or novel-length fiction – every author should keep some basic elements in mind, not the least of which is how to develop believable, three-dimensional characters.

Years ago, at a writing workshop I attended in Connecticut, our instructor led us through an exercise in creating detailed character profiles. The queries she posed ranged from our characters’ physical attributes to relationships with parents, and from childhood experiences to favorite and least-favorite things. Here are some of the items from that list:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Eye color/hair color
  • Hometown
  • Family structure (parents/siblings/extended family in the home?)
  • Relationship with parents
  • Occupation
  • Strengths/weaknesses/fears

 

Over the years, I’ve expanded the list of questions to ask my characters; in fact, some of them have balked, saying it’s approaching “interrogation” status. Nevertheless, here are some additional things to consider when rounding out a character:

  • What is his favorite color?
  • What is on his bedroom wall?
  • What does he like to do on his day off?
  • What does he suck at doing?
  • What must he have at the grocery store?
  • What does he refuse to eat?
  • What is his guilty pleasure?
  • Where won’t he be caught dead?
  • What is his best childhood memory?
  • What is his favorite musician/band?
  • What are his hobbies?

 

Once I’ve compiled a profile for each character, I’ve got a handy reference guide for when I’m wondering whether, for instance, Gary would ever order anchovies on his pizza (not a chance; he’s a sausage-and-mushroom guy) or if Marc would have far to travel to attend his class reunion (again, no; he lives about 20 minutes from Danbury High). I tend to get less detailed and picky with secondary or tertiary characters, but I still know their basic backgrounds.

However, it’s not enough simply to identify each character’s likes and dislikes; you must know their motivations, as well. After you’ve completed your character profile, ask these questions to get to the heart of your central character’s raison d’être:

  • What does he want more than anything?
  • Why must he achieve this goal?
  • What’s standing in his way?

 

You might end up never divulging any of this background information in your finished work (and this is especially true with flash fiction), but it’s vital to know about your characters’ history, drive and motivation, so you can write their story – and their dialogue – effectively.

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CAPA-U 2011

May 5, 2011

This Saturday, May 7, I’ll be speaking at the eighth annual Connecticut Authors & Publishers Association professional-development day for writers. CAPA-U (short for CAPA University) will be at the Hartford Steam Boiler Conference Center, One State Street, Hartford, CT.

I’ll be part of a panel discussing what to expect when working with an editor, and how to get the most from the author-editor relationship. We’ll likely touch on word choice, style, punctuation, spelling, grammar… perhaps even the funny side of the editing process – and, of course, we’ll set aside time to answer your questions.

Your admission gets you the day-long conference, complete with a choice of fifteen different workshops, keynote address, agents’ panel and a one-on-one meeting with a literary agent to discuss your work. A delicious buffet lunch is included… as is secured, indoor parking on site. It’s an amazing opportunity to meet and talk with other authors, hear some informational and inspiring speakers – and possibly win a refund of your registration fee. Not a writer but know someone who is? A ticket to CAPA-U makes a great Mother’s Day present!

There’s still time to sign up for CAPA-U… but don’t delay; registrations are filling up fast! Hope to see you there!


Speaking Engagement

May 28, 2009

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything and, in case you were wondering, the session at CAPA-U went really well.

I’ve just gotten another speaking engagement. I’ll be a guest presenter at the Rocky Hill Re-employment Group on Thursday, June 18. My topic will be “Grammar 101: How Not to Blow the Interview When You Open Your Mouth.”

This idea arose from my having to sit through one too many presentations by sales professionals who should know better – folks who say things like, “Me and my partner went to a seminar last month,” or “Him and me are going to talk about red widgets…” or the dreaded, “On behalf of my colleague and myself…”

Are you sensing my frustration here? Hang on a second while I thump my head against my desk in futility.

I’ll probably also veer off a little into the need to proofread your resume carefully. After all, you don’t want to send off your resume to a potential employer only to realize later that you listed your last job as “Pubic Relations Manger.”

I may be wrong, but that kind of thing seems awfully specialized… and I’m not sure many folks are hiring mangers these days, pubic or otherwise.

All levity aside, I must admit, I’m a smidgen anxious about getting up in front of people who are really there; my background is in radio – I’m used to talking to people who aren’t there. Really! I used to spend five or six hours a day in a 10×12-foot room, talking into a microphone to people who weren’t there! Now, I could reasonably assume someone was listening (if only my mother… and Scruffy, my cat), but I had no logical way of knowing someone was actually tuned in and paying attention to what I was saying.

And now – well, I just spend my days sitting at a computer, typing words… granted, I’m building pretty things with those words, crafting all kinds of fun structural stuff and making folks go, “Gee, I really want to buy that, now that you’ve described it so nicely!”

But addressing a group of live human beings? Not so much my comfort zone.

If you speak in front of people, how do you get up there and do it? What are your tips, your suggestions, your tools of the trade that make you not want to squeak, “Eep!” and hide behind your lectern?