It may sound easy, but building three-dimensional characters is one of the hardest parts of writing. This week, as part of the outstanding Writers Guild Foundation Veterans Writing Group (or Wiggif Vewg, as we cool people call it), I got a crash course on graduate-level character building. And, since I'm such a nice guy (forgot to write a blog post until the last minute), I'm gonna share some secrets with you.
A THREE DIMENSIONAL CHARACTER
So you want a character that leaps off the page, but you can't keep using your friends as stand-ins? No problem. All you need to do is understand the Three Dimensions of Character Building.
Now, if you're not familiar with the terminology, making a character "three-dimensional" just means that they feel real. Their wants and needs are relatable, their struggles are believable, and their motivations are understandable. Luke Skywalker is a great character because we can understand his struggle. His parents are a mystery to him. He feels trapped in a boring life. His aunt and uncle were murdered by space nazis. You know, stuff that happens to everyone.
It's one reason Superhero movies succeed or fail. Batman struggles with staying true to his cause and trying to find hope in his life. Everyone he loves is taken from him. Also, on occasion, he dresses like a bat and beats the shit out of people. Superman, in recent iterations, has no relatable qualities. He's a god with dad issues? Nah. He's in love with a reporter? They have less chemistry than a Mississippi high school curriculum. He's struggling to find his place in this world? Did I mention he's a god?
In terms of this blog post, however, when I say "three-dimensions" I mean:
What we're going to do today is a simple writing exercise. I want you to take a character you know and love. Not one of your own creation, at least not yet. Let's take a look at someone we all know so we can learn while doing. In this case, I'm going to my favorite superhero of all time, Spider-Man - Peter Parker.
The physical dimension is all about the visual of the character. What do they look like? How do they stand? How do they move? What can you tell just by looking at them? This is the most base part of character design, and it's usually where people stop. Don't just phone it in. Put some serious thought into your body work.
As details emerge, watch how the picture of this character forms in your mind.
1. Gender: Male
2. Age: Varies, but for this exercise we'll say 17
3. Height and Weight: 5'10'', 167 (from Marvel's website)
4. Color of Hair / Eyes / Skin: Brown / Lt. Brown / White
5. Posture: Loose, slouching, hidden athleticism
6. Appearance (Good-looking, over or under-weight, clean, neat, pleasant, untidy, etc. Shape of head, face, limbs): Youthful, with rounded feature and a lean build. Before developing powers, Peter is lanky, scrawny. After, he is sinewy, like Bruce Lee. He's cute, but would never be called a stunner. Meticulous about his tools, but his room is a landfill. Keeps clean, but isn't afraid of having dirt on his clothes. Thin fingers, like a pianist.
7. Defects (Deformities, abnormalities, birthmarks, diseases): Bitten by a radioactive spider, developing super-human abilities. Now has toxic blood.
8. Heredity: Both parents white, deceased.
This may not seem like much for a character, but can't you just picture him now? Walking with his backpack over one shoulder, slouched down so no one will notice him, weaving between throngs of citizens in New York?
After developing the physical traits of your characters, you should be able to visualize them with ease. When you're playing with action sequences, their movement--and the decisions they make--will come easier. As for their decision-making skills? That we'll work on next.
Your homework for next week is to describe the main character of your new story. Think in very shallow terms for now. I don't want to know who they are. Not yet. But what do I see when they walk in the room?