How to Build 2D and 3D Characters

When do you need 2D characters? How do you develop 3D characters?

by Deborah Owen

Every main character must be three-dimensional, and every supporting character should be two-dimensional, but what exactly does that mean? It means your 3D characters should be like real people with nuances, nervous gestures, attitudes, good and bad habits, a past history, future dreams, and unpredictability, just like a real person.

Supporting characters (2D) don’t need to show in-depth characteristics. The reader doesn’t need to know what makes a 2D character tick – but you should know – just in case you dip your pen a little deep in the inkwell some story-writing night and you need extra detail.

If you will do the following characterization exercise just twice, you will never have to do it again. It will come automatically from then on. Every story will have a protagonist (white hat guy) and an antagonist (villain). For these two characters, create a long and detailed background of 50 questions that will describe what the character is like. For example:

  1. What are their attitudes?
  2. How do they talk?
  3. What flaws do they have?
  4. What emotional problems do they have?
  5. Where are they from?
  6. What was their childhood like?
  7. What is their occupation?
  8. What are their actions like?
  9. Do they walk fast or slow?
  10. What is their mood, most of the time? Somber? Dramatic? Joking? Angry?
  11. How do they get along with their family?
  12. Describe their past life.
  13. What is their Holiday season like?

What type of “warts” do your characters have? (Warts are bits of information that distinguish one character from another.) For example, a wart can be a limp, a bald head, heavy make-up, strange clothing, a nervous tic, pimples, stuttering, or anything else you choose.

For instance, your story features a woman whose son is getting married. She goes to the store and deliberately orders her dress for the wedding two sizes too small. What does that tell you about her? Answer: a lot!

  1. She’s determined to lose weight before the wedding.
  2. She’s proud.
  3. She’s stubborn.
  4. She’s the kind of person who sets goals and reaches them.
  5. She will fit into that dress by the time the wedding rolls around.

We learned all of that by a tiny wart. Let’s try another. A woman is insanely stressed over varicose veins in her legs, yet she eventually changes to wearing shorts and bathing suits in public. Why? We could make lots of guesses at this one. Maybe she had the varicose veins removed. Maybe she just learned to accept her plight in life and not let it hold her back.

This could turn into a classic demonstration of a character change, based on the man vs. man conflict (which can mean child vs. child, woman vs. woman, etc.) This can be one of the strongest conflicts, but it’s also the most difficult to write. This technique showcases a person’s inner battle and their ultimate change.

To finish your characterization study, search a catalog or the Internet until you find a picture that reminds you of your two leading characters, and then tape those pictures where you’ll see them first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

You won’t use all of the information you create, but you’ll know your character inside out and building a 3D character will be easy.

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5 thoughts on “How to Build 2D and 3D Characters

  1. Hi Deb,
    So , lets say, the person who so out of sorts make the best character.
    Maybe one mean with no respect for others make a dynamic person/character it does make interesting reading.
    As you said one time, You must make yourself angry in order to write
    that kind of character and sell the book/story.
    I wonder ?
    Sonny

    Like

    1. You must be willing to PRETEND you are a different kind of person before you can make the story believable. Every story must have an antagonist. Think of him/her as the antagonizer… always starting trouble. If you have two heroes, you have no story. No conflict. Deb

      Like

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