New Dimensions

On February 4, 2010, Jaime wrote, …I really need to learn how to make my characters more dimensional.

I worry about this too.  I know writers – some of you may be among them – who can take their characters with them to pick out gift wrapping paper and know exactly which pattern each character will select.  This is admirable, but I can’t do it.  I can guess for a few of my characters.  Wilma, for example, in The Wish loves dogs, so if there’s gift-wrap with dogs on it, that’s what she’ll choose.  On the other hand, she’s considerate, so she might forego dogs for something the gift recipient would want.

See?  I don’t know for sure.

I’m particularly uncertain about my characters near the beginning of a book when we haven’t been together for very long.  They haven’t gone through many situations yet.  I haven’t seen their reactions or dreamed up reactions for them.  I’m feeling my way.  How will Patrick (invented right now) react to losing the allowance money he’s been saving for a year?  I think about his possible responses, list several, consider their impact on my story, pick one, and keep going.  Later, what he did about the lost money may give me a clue to how he’ll behave when he has an important exam coming up.  I already know that he saved for a year, so he’s a preparer.  But his previous preparation did him no good, so maybe he’ll decide to wing the test.  Or he may do something entirely different, which I discover through notes.

The point is not to feel you’ve failed if you haven’t mined the depths of your characters’ characters right away.

When I was very little,  two or three years old, my mother took me to a university for some kind of intelligence test.  I’m not sure why, but I suspect I wasn’t talking as fluently as my older sister had at the same age.  I think I remember the event because my mother made me promise not to tell my father.  I have a few vivid memories of it.  The examiner, a friendly man, asked me what a puddle was, and I knew but couldn’t find the words to explain – I hadn’t yet learned concavity.  I smiled at him and probably shrugged.  Inside I felt frustrated and foolish.  Afterward, he told my mother (in my presence) that he was concerned at the beginning but then I improved.  I think he wound up saying that I was normal.  On our way home, I remember having the adult and forgiving thought that of course my mother needed me to take the test.  I was new, and she hadn’t figured me out yet.

The same goes for our characters, who are new to us, and it takes a while to get to know them and figure them out.  In Writing Magic, in the chapter called “Character Helper,” there’s a questionnaire that can help you round out your characters.  It asks basic questions about the character and also questions that call for some digging.  Some may never come up in your story.  Your character may be a medieval peasant before pockets or purses or backpacks were invented.  She certainly doesn’t have her own bedroom.  You can answer the question anyway or adapt it to suit your needs.  If she has no backpack, she may still collect things and hide them in a secret place or in a sack that she keeps with her always.

Most often I use the questionnaire, not when I’m thinking up the character in the first place, but later, when I’m in trouble, when the character is as opaque to me as the bottom of a frying pan.  As I answer the questions, traits come to me.  Ah.  Patrick is freaked out by people with loud voices.  He doesn’t like to be asked to explain his actions; he wants to be trusted.  He loves to whistle.  Now I’m getting a better idea of him.

The writer’s best tools for creating layered characters are feelings and thoughts.  Let’s make Patrick a minor character this time.  He’s a friend of our main character, Louisa, and he’s been hurt by another character, physically or emotionally.  How does Louisa feel about this?  Pure sympathy?  Does she cry?  Or chew the inside of her cheek?  Does she tell anyone?  Does she feel the hurt as if it had happened to her?  Does she want to take revenge for her friend?  Or does she see both sides?  Does she guess how Patrick contributed to the hurt?  Does she want him to learn a lesson?  Does she want to be the person to explain the lesson?

If you show Louisa’s thoughts and feelings she’ll become more real to you and the reader.  Her thoughts and feelings may not be saintly even if she’s a good person.  She may be prone to envy or to criticize or to deny unwelcome emotions.  If her reactions are genuine, the reader is likely to find himself in her.  Then the reader will collaborate with you in endowing her with complexity.

You can try throwing your main character into a new setting or introducing a new character.  Stirring things up may bring out aspects of your character that you haven’t seen before.  Give Louisa a peculiar new teacher.  Send her on a camping trip.

Here are a couple of character-development prompts.  To do them, use a character in a story you’re working on or invent a new character.

  •  Your main character has been insulted in any way you choose by someone he (or she) thinks is on his side, and the insult comes out of the blue.  What does he feel?  How does he express the feeling?  What does he think?  Does he keep his thoughts to himself?  How does he interact with the person who delivered the insult?
  • Your main character is traveling alone for the first time.  Make up the circumstances that occasion the trip.  How does she (or he) get ready?  What are her thoughts and feelings about it?
  • Take Patrick’s problem.  Your main character has lost (through carelessness or theft or whatever you like) his stash of cash.  What does he do?  How does he think and feel?
Have fun!  Save what you wrote.

  1. Thanks so much for this, Mrs. Levine… I often worry about making readers feel like my characters, making them feel as if they'll walk off the page. This really helps; and thanks for the writing exercises! 😀

  2. I am still struggling, after writing for years and years, with organization. The advice is always to keep what you write (and it's great advice) but where do you put it all? And how do you organize a work in progress so that you don't lose the little notes you scribble while you're in line at the bank? Any help is always appreciated.

  3. Thanks for the advice! I think my problem is that my characters' personalities seem too similar. I have a hard time making them seem distinct, as opposed to people who think exactly alike…

    I came across this blog post a short while ago, and I think it really helps with getting to know characters. Here's the link in case anyone's interested in looking at it:

  4. My problem is I have too many characters wandering about in my world, and I have difficulty in making them have different characteristics. I don't know who I should remove from the story!

    I realize this is like two questions. How to determine who stays in the story, and how to make them all unique?

    I may need to bring in some of the lesser characters into my second book, but it's frustrating now deciding which people contribute now and which should later…

  5. Thanks so much for posting about this, Mrs. Levine! Right now, I'm having the same problem with my main character. I want her to be like me, so she can react to things the way I would, but she is very flat so far. Maybe it's because it's hard to see interesting characteristics in myself. Maybe I should make up new, different characteristics for her? Or magnify my own?

  6. A wonderful post. I really liked that Patrick character! It was really helpful. I just realized that I have a tendency to introduce characters as I need them, and then, when the scene is over, you don't hear from them again. And I'm pretty sure that is NOT good. The problem is, I also need those characters. Have you ever had a problem like this? How do you step over it?

  7. This was a great post! I know I definitely struggled with characterization when I first started, and um, probably still do if I admit it. 🙂 It makes me feel better to know it's okay if you don't know the character completely at the beginning of the story – and I agree that exploring through notes is a good idea.

    So much of the characterization help I have seen int he past is geared toward adult characters, so all your tips are really great! Another one that helped me with a child character: imagine your character on the playground at school.

  8. Hello. I LOVE 'Ella Enchanted'. I have A huge list of favourite books in my head, and 'Ella Enchanted' is tied for the top with 'An Old Fahioned Girl' by Louisa May Alcott. I also loved 'Writing Magic'. I didnt read all of it, but I don't remember why, I'm going to try to get it from the library again. I also adore you're short fairy tales like 'Cinderellis and the Glass Hill', and all the other ones. I can't remember any of the other names right now, but I love them! You're inspiring me to try to be a writer when I can't write at all. I'm not sure if that will end well, but maybe it will with someone who can write! I'm gonna put a link to your blog on mine:, ok? Thank you!

  9. I agree with Erin…I was relieved to know that it's normal not to know your character! Like I've mentioned before, it was hard for me to connect with the characters.

  10. Jen– I don't know if this helps, but you could try eliminating characters who are just "there" and don't really contribute to the story. I had the same problem a few drafts back in my book with one character, and I eventually just realized that she was in the story but not part of the story. She was just an extra character hanging around with no initial purpose. I don't know if that makes sense, but i hope it helps!:)

  11. Wow! Many comments on characterization!
    Pambelina–You may get some help from my posting of August 12, 2009. As for the notes written in line at the bank, get them into your computer as soon as you can. If the old blog post doesn't answer your question, please ask me more.
    Silver the Wanderer–Yes, the questionnaire on Query Tracker is very interesting.
    Silver the Wanderer and Jen–Let me see if I can write a post about characters who seem too much alike.
    Jen and F–And I'll post about too many characters too.
    Maybeawriter–A post on characters like oneself, an interesting topic. I'll get to it.
    Erin Edwards–I'm so glad your daughter loved the books!
    May–I enjoyed looking at your lively blog! I'd be happy if you link to mine, and I'm delighted you loved ELLA ENCHANTED, THE PRINCESS TALES, and WRITING MAGIC!

  12. Nice Article, as usual, Ms. Levine. I have a burning question; it's been keeping me up at night so I beg that you help me. I had been in the habit of clearly and obviously stating my character's goal at the beginning of each chapter, because many "professionals" recommended doing so. Then I went to my first critique session last night, and everybody told me that they didn't want to know the character's goal, that they wanted to find out as the story went along. What is your view on this? Should the reader know just the story goal, and not the original chapter goals?
    Also, what is your approach on plotting, in general. Do you follow a formula? I've been following the Goal, Conflict, Disaster, then reflection formula, and people look at me like I'm crazy when I tell them that. Is there a hidden structure that you use for each of your chapters? I would love any advice!

  13. Imw–I hope you won't lose any more sleep! I never heard of stating a character's goals at the beginning of a chapter. I don't follow a formula. I wish I knew one that worked! My post of 12/29/09 called "Plot Luck" may be helpful. I also posted about chapters on 11/4/09, so you can check that one out too.

  14. Ms. Levine-
    Also, I have a problem with revamping fairy tales. I always ask myself "why" and "how come" but I never find anything. Then, when I read a retold fairy tale, I say, "Oh yeah! Why didn't I think of that? And then, when the book The Thirteenth Princess, a retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" came out and I saw it at the library, I nearly boiled over. All day I was saying to myself, "Why didn't I think about that? I could have JUST asked, WHY did the princesses dance every night?" Could you give me a bit of advice on this topic?

  15. Guinevere–I didn't know about THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS! I've been trying to figure out that fairy tale for years. I've added your question to my list, but it will take me a while to get there. In the meanwhile, if you haven't already, you might like to read the chapter called "Fiddling with Fairy Tales" in my WRITING MAGIC.

  16. Su_rian–I'm not sure what your questions are. If they're on a specific project that you don't want to share with everyone on the blog, I'm sorry but I don't have time to work with people individually, except for the kids who participate in my summer workshop. But if they're general questions that may apply to many writers, please ask!

  17. Guinevere- I actually glanced at the Thirteenth Princess in the library and had the same thought as yours! I find it terribly hard to base a story on a fairy tale though I've always wanted to.

    This post about characters is really helpful. Ever since I read Writing Magic, though, I've been doing a character profile and its been a tremendous help.=)

  18. As far as redoing a fairy tale goes, I think a good idea is to look for off-the-beaten-path tales that haven't been redone much.
    I'm not saying don't use Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, only that it might be harder to come up with something that hasn't already been done.
    I've thought of redoing The Pied Piper or other strange, less common stories. The Twelve Dancing Princesses sounds like a good choice.
    And remember, ideas can't be copyrighted, especially when the original tale is old enough to be in the public domain. Feel free to rewrite a fairy tale any way you like, even if somebody else did it in a similar way.
    As Mrs. Levine says…
    Have Fun!
    Save what you wrote.

  19. Um, although you might still be criticized if you were to place Cinderella under a curse like in "Ella Enchanted."
    Still, there might be a way to pull that off without rewriting "Ella."

  20. Thanks for all the feedback! This is really helpful!
    Mya: Really? You're very right!
    maybeawriter: I had the same thought as you, but I was afraid readers wouldn't really "get" the things in the book. Like in Cinderella, everybody gets it if you put in stepsisters like in the original fairy tale. But if I redid a more obscure one, most people wouldn't know what I was talking about.
    And yeah, Ella Enchanted is probably the most cleverly retold fairy tale, and I wouldn't be able to pull it off without everybody knowing it.

  21. I didn't even realize that Ella Enchanted was a retelling of Cinderella until I was at the part of the three balls and my friend pointed it out. Not even the glass slippers gave me a clue, LOL.
    And I love the unique fairy feet idea – it makes so much sense!

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