Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Maine Writers Conference - part 3: Creating 3-D Characters

During the Maine Fellowship of Christian Writers conference in Belfast, Maine this summer I attended  a workshop on Creating 3-D Characters presented by award winning author Susan Page Davis. Susan shared how to develop dynamic characters.  She is an expert at this, having written over 20 novels.  She has graciously allowed me to share with you my notes from her workshop.

Remember what Steinbeck said:  Poor fiction works like early westerns.  Get rid of those sterotypical black and white hats.

Find a system that works for you in keeping track of characters' stats and oddities.  But don't forget, some characters are meant to be flat (Or, as fantasy author Teryy Brooks, puts it, "Some characters are only there for cannon fodder.") 

Susan recommends creating character index cards to keep track of traits for use during the writing of a book as well as for later reference.

Five (overlapping) elements of the Character:

 Appearance - 

Often the outer appearance of the character is an indication of other character elements.  If they are forgetful, perhaps they where mismatched clothing. Show it in the way they dress, their posture, expressions, external idiosyncrasies, etc.

Speech -

A little goes a long way:  speech impediments, foreign language, slang, etc.

Background -

RUE:  Resist the Urge to Explain

Don't dump information, spread info out in small doses. Let their background compliment their present, don't use unless it is helpful to the story.  Background revealed should be significant.

The past will impact the character: their culture, family, experiences, others expectations, expectations of themselves, etc.

Behavior -

If there are special skills, have it forshadowed if it will be used significantly.  Don't just all of a sudden have your character be able to create award winning art if you never have them paint, or repair their own car if they don't shown any skills for that, etc.

Describe emotion without naming it.  Don't say, he was furious.  Rather, say he growled and threw the glass into the fireplace.

Inner Being -

Includes temperment, emotion, will, character traits.  Personality is part of their inner being. 

Make reader care about characters.  Main characters must be likeable, especially important for romance.  Reader must be sympathetic to character.

They should have flaws and fears - not extreme - but they can't be too good all the time.  If you give them a flaw or fear there should be a reason for it. Give them a good struggle and room for growth.  Don't put it all up front.

Show inner conflict through other characters.  Through what they say, how they react, it can even be negative as long as the reader still cares.

Characters should grow out of goals and seek change.  Outer action leads to inner realization. Inner goals and outside goals can run parallel or be separate, but show some kind of progression.  Does the goal change, stay the same, does it still matter?  Have this make sense because of who they are and what they want to achieve.  Characters change until the defining moment and then they have to step out of their comfort zone or digress. Don't disregard reader's expectations.

(This picture of Sue and me was taken at one of her book signings last year.)

Remember to give the reader what she wants at the end
of the story.  If you're writing a romance, the couple had better wind up together.  If you're writing a mystery, the killer had better be revealed!  As Oscar Wilde put it, "The good end happily, and the bad unhappily.  This is what Fiction means."


  1. Carla,
    Great Article and thanks for stopping by and signing up as a follower. I am doing the same for you!
    Deborah M.

  2. Hi, Carla. I saw your blog mentioned on the Books & Such Blog Carnival.

    The advice in this post is great. Thanks for sharing your notes.


  3. I'm glad you both enjoyed the article. Susan did such an excellent workshop. One interesting thing I gained from it was the layering of character traits. The categories overlap and do not just fit in neatly to one area, multi-dimensial was the word.

    Thanks for following me Deborah!

    Carol, thanks for stopping by on the blog carnival. Isn't this fun!

  4. Carla, I'm following the Blog Carnival! You've shared some great tips on layering character traits. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for the helpful post, Carla. I like short sentences that say a lot. :)


  6. Glad you dropped in Laura and Susan!
    Sue Davis had some great tips. I hope my notes are clear enough! I was good to go back overthem myself to help me recall the session.

  7. Great synopsis, Carla. Thanks for sharing. I love the RUE. I'm always having to remind myself of that one. The mismatched clothes for forgetful characters is very interesting. I'll have to think more on what my characters wear to help define their traits.

  8. Eileen, it's so neat that we can paint a picture with our mere words!

  9. Thanks for sharing your notes with us, Carla. I love how succinct they are too -- and sensible. I keep thinking that I can remember it all in my head, but I'm finding that isn't the case and I'm always searching back for info on something about one of my characters. I think I'll pick up some index cards today. Pretty coloured ones :-)

    And I like this: "Show inner conflict through other characters." That's fodder for thought. You've got me thinking.

  10. Hi Kav, there was too much good stuff at this conference for me to keep it a secret! Besides, it was my first writers conference and I'm still bubbling over. Sue had some great insights.

    I was thinking of getting the pretty colorful index cards myself. I don't know, blue for hero, pink for heroine, green for antagonists . . .

    Susan said she has a neat little box that she keeps the current story index cards in and then she puts an elastic around them when done and files them away, until she may need them again.

    "Show inner conflict through other characters." Yes, lots to think about there. I had a minister once, also a writer, who used the word "troubler". He said often we find ourselves with one in our lives, they irritate us, contradict us, ugly things about ourselves sometimes arise in us because of our relationship with that person. But instead of focusing on their flaws and faults we should take our reactions to the Lord and consider what it is that we are learning about ourselves through this uncomforatable situation. It can actaully be a blessing, even if it is painful. That's how I'm trying to view my antagonists. As a "troubler" and trying to get in tune to what is going in in the protagonists heart and head.

  11. Troubler. Now there's a descriptive word. And not only a writing lesson, but a life lesson as well. Thanks for that. (this is me proving that I can also be concise instead of a rambler). LOL.


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