Creating realistic and fully fleshed-out characters is essential to quality storytelling. There are plenty of ways to fill characters out, particularly in revision. I’m going to share with you some tips for getting the jump start on those characters, and with some short exercises, you may find your characters coming to life before you’ve even started page one of your novel.
This is a great way to get a head start on NaNoWriMo!
What do I mean by 4D?
1D – one dimensional – is linear. Characters like this are nothing more than talking heads. They feel nothing, do nothing.
2D – two dimensional – is like watching a TV or looking at an image. What you see is what you get. It’s all surface. Sure, there may be movement on a TV screen, but it is confined to the single plane. 2D characters are flat and unsurprising. Often they are tropes, simple reusable archetypes. They do what you need them to do, when you need them to do it.
3D – three dimensional – brings movement into the picture. Action. Decision-making. Maybe even emotion. In terms of quality, 3D characters are better than 2D, because they move us. They go places, they take action. They may show direction, drive, or even fear, uncertainty, but the foundations of these attributes are unclear. They usually exist for the sake of plot advancement.
4D – four dimensional – is what feels closest to reality. The 4th dimension of a character is who they are. These characters are defined by past experiences and interactions. Their pasts consist of events and people. Real things that have inspired them, or left marks on them. They are each their own story, long before the plot of the story being told came along.
Give Every Character a Bio
I recommend trying this exercise with every main character you plan to introduce into your novel, and give it a shot with some of the side characters too (side characters don’t need to be as full as main characters, but it never hurts to take them beyond archetypes, as long as they don’t overshadow/outshine your main characters).
Start with the basics. What is your character’s ethnicity and/or nationality? What is their occupation? Is it what they want to do? If not, what’s their dream job?
I also love to entertain questions about their parents: what is/was their mother’s occupation? Their father’s? Just answering these questions can dramatically influence how you feel about a character. Suddenly they become someone you know, someone you are friends with (or rivals with). This seemingly simple aspect of their life fills in so much complex detail.
Think about extended family and friendships. Just jot them down, anything of relevance. Remember that by including this data in the character’s bio, you are not obligated to include it in the story – so stretch out, let yourself be unedited with the people in this character’s life.
Get me a Psych Eval
Now my favorite part: getting into the character’s psychology. For main characters, try to fill out most of these, for side characters just try to hit a few. If you’re having trouble, as an exercise, try filling it out for yourself (as if you were the character).
Who or what does this person love? Are they or it still present in this person’s life, or are they gone for some reason?
Who or what does this person hate? Why? And when you ask why, think about the surface, obvious reasons versus the unconscious reasons.
What is this person most afraid of? Can this fear be used in the story to bring about a breaking point for them?
What is this person most proud of? Can their pride be made into a weakness?
What is this person ashamed of (secretly or outwardly)? Remember, shame is social; when a person is ashamed, they “lose face”, they feel their reputation, their public image has been compromised.
What does this person feel guilty about? Guilt is different than shame; when a person is guilty, they know they’re in the wrong, and usually they wish they could take something back, undo something they regret.
What is this person’s greatest moment, biggest achievement? Note: it may be something they are proud of, but it may not.
What is their person’s lowest moment? What did they try and fail? Note: they may regret the event, but they may not. They also may or may not have learned from it.
Notice that these traits come in pairs; there is an intentional duality, and you can leverage this to create well-balanced characters. Do you want all characters to be in perfect balance? No, of course not – however, whenever you want your readers to be able to relate to a character, look to the balance. In real life, everything is ups and downs, strengths and faults, successes and failures.
That’s the Start, Now Where Does it Go?
To really take these concepts to the next level, you need to also be able to think about these character traits at various points throughout the story. Any of these can change as the story progresses, and they certainly won’t all be the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. These changes are what constitute the character’s arc.
Some things will remain the same; maybe a character will still love whatever they’ve always loved. But some things will definitely change; maybe they will shed what they thought they hated and find a new concept or entity to scorn. If you can figure some of these character paths out before you even begin your first draft, the story will practically write itself.
If you’re prepping for NaNoWriMo, be sure to check out my article on Plotting!
Downloadable Character Bio Template
Bonus round: just for you (yeah, you!), I threw together this template. There’s a PDF for printing and a DOCX for editing. Have fun!