How do you make sure that your characters–both main and supporting–are three-
dimensional? It can be easier said than done, but if you follow these three steps, you’ll
develop characters who are believable, relatable, and compelling.
1: Your characters need to want something. And you, the author, need to
know what their motivations are.
The first question you should ask yourself before you write each and every scene in your
novel is, what do my characters want? The second question should be why?
This is how you’ll determine the choices that your characters make, which in turn drives
their actions. And their actions will determine the plot of your story.
In other words, your characters’ goals and motivations are what creates the plot of your
For example, in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Jake, the protagonist, wants to prevent JFK’s
assassination by using time travel. Jake is a good person and he truly believes that many
of the world’s problems stem from Kennedy being killed. Jake has other, smaller goals
throughout the novel, like wanting to be with the woman he loves, who happens to live
It’s these goals that create the plot of the novel, and which lead to inevitable conflict.
That brings us to tip #2.
2: In EVERY scene, EVERY character should have both an internal and an
If your characters don’t face conflict, then they won’t experience growth. That
means no character arc.
Before you decide that it’s impossible to create two conflicts for every character in
every scene, remember that you can reuse and recycle.
Take, for example, Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta both
face an internal conflict throughout the book, in that they’re attracted to each other.
But they can’t be together and survive, so they both have the same internal conflict
of fighting their attraction. But their external conflicts are different, and at least for
the second half of the novel, those conflicts are pretty consistent. Katniss wants to
survive so she can go home and take care of her sister. Peeta wants to protect
These conflicts, both internal and external, test their endurance and determination,
forcing them to examine what they really want, and to decide what they’re willing to
sacrifice to get it. And this leads to an incredible climax, when they’re both about to
sacrifice themselves rather than kill each other. The emotion of that scene is
heightened for sure, but it’s also genuine and organic, which brings me to tip #3.
3: Ground your characters’ emotions in their responses to conflict, and
display their emotions through action and dialogue.
We’ve already established that in every scene, your characters will face conflict. So,
how do those conflicts work out, and how does it make your characters feel? Have
they lost or gained anything? Are they surprised, victorious, nervous, or sad?
Figuring out your characters’ emotional response is the easy part. The hard part is
showing it (rather than telling it) to the reader. The answer? Communicate through
description of physical action and/or dialogue.
For example, in 11/22/63, Stephen King shows the reader Jake’s enduring love for
Sadie through this physical description:
“Before she can ask about that I slip my arm around her waist. She slips hers
around mine, still looking up at me. The lights skate across her cheeks and shine in
her eyes. We clasp hands, fingers folding together naturally, and for me the years
fall away like a coat that’s too heavy and too tight.”
-Stephen King, 11/22/63
In The Hunger Games, we understand the depth of Peeta’s love for Katniss through
this exchange of dialogue:
“You have a… remarkable memory.”
“I remember everything about you. You’re the one who wasn’t paying
― Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
To recap, make your characters want something and know what their motivations are.
Then, throw obstacles at your characters with both internal and external conflicts.
Finally, give your characters interesting things to say and do, by showing their
emotional responses through action and dialogue.
If you stick to those three rules, your characters will be so three-dimensional, they’ll
practically jump off the page!
For more extensive information about character development, I recommend The Writers’ Digest Editor’s Guide to Creating Characters