By Douglas J. Eboch
We often call good characters “three-dimensional.” Three-dimensional characters are complex and unique, with fully developed fictional lives. This makes them seem like real people. And the more real the character seems, the more the audience will identify with them and care about what happens to them. Also, realistic characters are necessary for the audience to suspend their disbelief and buy into the story. This is especially true with stories set in unfamiliar worlds, like science fiction, fantasy, and historical drama. We need realistic characters to ground us in these strange environments. Underdeveloped characters are called “flat” or “cardboard” for a reason. They don’t engage our emotions. We don’t care about what happens to them, so we don’t care about the story.
Why do we say three dimensions, rather than four or five or ten? Because there are three aspects of a person’s (or character’s) life:
The nature of a character’s body affects their attitude toward the world and the world’s attitude toward them. Are they male or female or transgender? How old are they? What is their race? Are they athletic? How is their health? Are they graceful, clumsy, sexy or sickly? Naturally attractive or ugly? Do they have a high-pitched, squeaky voice or a deep, soothing voice?
Psychological traits are the elements of the character’s personality. Are they outgoing or shy? Optimistic or pessimistic? Patient or short-tempered? Greedy, overly-sensitive, confident, competitive, charming, uptight, lecherous and/or kind? What are they most afraid of? What do they enjoy? What are their political, philosophical, and religious beliefs? Are they gay, straight, or somewhere in between?
Social characteristics can be thought of as demographics. Is the character single, married, divorced? Are they dating – if so, who and for how long? Do they have kids? Are their parents alive and do they get along with them? Is the character popular, stylish, a jock, or a nerd? What is their job? What religion do they belong to (which may be different from their spiritual beliefs) and do they actively participate in it? What is their socioeconomic class? Education level? What ethnicity, and are they a minority in their environment? What social groups are they part of – friends, work groups, hobby groups? Where do they live – what city and what kind of domicile? Whom do they live with?
You can get a good start building a multidimensional character by simply listing traits under those three categories. Here are three additional exercises that will help make your characters into more fully realized, complex human beings.
1. Give them plans.
In order for your characters to seem like real people, they can’t just be sitting around waiting for your story to happen to them. The story has to interrupt a life in progress. In other words, your characters have to have plans. I try to establish my characters’ short-term, medium-term and long-term plans. The movie Little Miss Sunshine demonstrates this well. Richard isn’t sitting around waiting for his daughter to get into a beauty pageant. He has plans. His short-term plan involves the inconvenience of taking in his brother-in-law, Frank, after Frank’s attempted suicide. In the medium term he’s trying to confirm a book deal for his “9 Steps” plan. In the long term he wants to be a motivational guru. Showing the characters’ plans helps to establish who they are and what they want.
2. Make them really good at something and really bad at something.
We are interested in people who are exceptional. But a character who is great at everything is both unbelievable and a little annoying. Similarly, though dark anti-heroes are in fashion right now, a character with no positive qualities is hard to care about. The best characters have both an exceptional talent and a massive flaw. That’s what makes Tony Stark one of the best characters in the Marvel cinematic universe. He’s a brilliant inventor, but he’s saddled with a massive ego that constantly gets him in trouble. On the show Mad Men, Don Draper was the best creative executive in the business, but he was a disaster at personal relationships.
3. Break the stereotype.
Most characters could easily fit into some kind of stereotype – the doctor who is smart and arrogant, the soldier who is macho, the CEO who is greedy and heartless, the scientists who is a nerdy man. It’s not surprising when the stereotype version of a character is a screenwriter’s first instinct – after all, that’s why they’re stereotypes. But when you settle for the stereotype, your character will seem like an icon rather than a person. Imagine the stereotypical version of your character, and then do something different. Instantly your character will feel like a unique individual. Sometimes you need to maintain an element of the stereotype for your story, though. Let’s say you need that CEO to be greedy and heartless. What other elements of the stereotype can you change? Maybe rather than a middle-aged white guy, you make your greedy, heartless CEO a southern Black woman. In the Netflix show Jessica Jones, Jessica is in many ways a stereotypical noir detective. She is tough, brooding, antisocial, and a raging alcoholic. But by making her a young woman with superpowers and a close relationship with her sister, she feels fresh and unique.
You do have to find some kind of consistency as you employ these techniques. Randomly attaching adjectives to your character will result in a confusing, implausible character. But sometimes adding one or two unexpected elements is all it takes to really bring a character to life. Like most things in writing, the more specific and detailed you are, the better.
And when you create fully fleshed out and realistic three-dimensional characters, the audience will be anxious to find out what happens to them.
Guest blogger Douglas J. Eboch is the original screenwriter of the movie “Sweet Home Alabama.” He wrote the how-to book “The Three Stages of Screenwriting,” and co-wrote “The Hollywood Pitching Bible” with producer Ken Aguado. He was awarded the Carl Sautter Award for Most Promising New Voice in feature films for his screenplay titled “Overload.”