How to create three-dimensional characters

In this post, I am going to try and cover all of the suggested topic “how to create three-dimensional major characters, versus two-dimensional minor characters”. Thanks to Allan for suggesting this topic.

I am not confident I can do this one justice. Lets dive in and see how I do.

What does it mean to create a three-dimensional character?

I am of the opinion that all characters should have depth. Just like real people, there should be subtle nuances, and complex motivations driving your characters. When you do this well they are said to be three-dimensional.

Well rounded characters are more compelling. They are easier to believe in and cheer forward.

A two-dimensional character is a cardboard cut out or a stock character. They stay the same from one story to the next with just the name and a new wig. The hero who does the right thing because he is the hero and the villain who tries to end the world just because he is evil. These are not interesting. They lack depth.

Giving characters depth

Giving your characters depth can be as simple as asking a few questions.

  • What do they want?
  • Why do they want it?
  • Which method will they try to use to get it?

These are questions that will get you started. Now you can ask deeper questions. No character is perfect so:

  • What flaws does the character have?
  • Do they have a vice?
  • What are their fears?
  • Which weaknesses afflict them?
  • They have limits, so what are they?

You should keep on asking questions until the character feels like someone you could actually know. There is a forum thread over on Author Buzz filled with questions to ask your character.

What you are doing is getting to know the character’s backstory and motivations. You have a character that has internal as well as external struggles to deal with.

Making your character different

No matter what type of story you are writing, hundreds or thousands of similar stories already exist. There is even an argument to be made that all stories are one story.

The Heroes' journey

How characters stand out

What makes your story different or better is your characters. What about these characters makes them stand out? What makes them different? Why are their struggles so hard? How are they suffering to get to the finish?

You cannot hope to answer these questions until you get to know your characters. Every person carries the influences of their past with them. Your character needs to too. So what is their past? What was their relationship with their family like? Is it the same or did it change?

Characters do not exist in a vacuum (unless they are astronauts). They have a culture they come from and friendships and beliefs. Each facet of their life – past and present – colours who they are and how they see the world.

This is true even of minor characters. While it may be true that they could be on page for only a few paragraphs they still deserve to have some depth. Some background that makes them who they are. Perhaps they have shared values with the hero. Maybe they have a very different world view.

The Thanet Creative Skills centre has a wealth of resources to help you map out and give life to unique characters. There are character creation sheets you can use to create character profiles. These sheets are based on what I use to create characters.

Making a character compelling

Compelling characters go through three stages as the story progresses:

  1. Compassion (or pity)
  2. Fear
  3. Catharsis

We start with a believable fleshed out person to whom something bad happens which causes us to feel pity. We feel fear for the character as we follow them through their trials. Finally, we have catharsis as the character finally overcomes (or doesn’t, depending on the story you are telling).

We took a deep dive into this with “How to write interesting and compelling female characters“.

You may wish to take a look at our Writers’ Explore series which covers writing about very specific things from murder to mental illness.


To write a three-dimensional character you need to have some understanding of what makes them tick. They should feel as real to you as any of your friends. They should have attitudes that makes sense given the setting and their upbringing.

The deeper you dive into the life and history of your character the more real their journey, their struggles, and their motivations. As a result, the more satisfying the story you will write.

Have I missed anything out? What would you add? Do you have any tricks for making fully fleshed out characters with depth and personality? Let us know in the comments below.

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