To all the writers who have ever been told “Your characters have to be three dimensional!” or “They should be well-rounded!” and just felt like saying: “What does that even MEAN?! What goes into a 3-dimensional character? Specifically? And how do you go about creating one?!”
Good news. There’s a way.
Great main characters – heroes, protagonists, deuteragonist, whatever you want to call them – have ten things in common. Ten things that are easily developed, once you know what to create within your character. So no one will ever be able to tell you “needs to be more three dimensional!” ever again. Ha.
1) Weaknesses: Main characters should be flawed, but I’m not saying this because it will make them more realistic (though it will) – I’m saying they need to be flawed because if they’re not, they shouldn’t be a main character. Story is another word for change, or more accurately, character growth. Not character as in “fictional person”, character meaning “heart and soul”. Story is someone’s character changing, for better or worse. Main characters at the beginning of the story are lacking something vital, some knowledge of themselves, some knowledge of how to live a better life, and this void is ruining their lives. They must overcome these weaknesses, if they’re going to become complete, and reach a happy ending. There are two types of weaknesses: Psychological and Moral. Psychological ones only hurt the main character. Moral ones cause the main character to hurt other people. Easy.
2) Goal: Characters exist because they want something. Desiring something, and the fight against opposition for that desire, is the lifeblood of story; and because character is story, it’s also desire that can breathe life into words on a page, and begin the process of creating a real person in a reader’s mind. It’s this ‘desire for something’ that sparks that first connection between reader and character. It makes us think “Well, now I have to find out if this person gets what they want.” This is a powerful link. (How many mediocre movies do we suffer through, when we could easily stop watching, because we’re still trapped by that question of “what happens?”) So if this is powerful enough to keep people watching an annoying movie, imagine how powerful it can be in an excellent story.
Like in Up, the goal is to get the house to Paradise Falls.
3) Want: If the main character wants something, they want it for a darn good reason. Usually, they think that attaining the goal will fill the void they can sense in their lives, the deficiency they can feel, but don’t know how to fix. And they’re almost always wrong. Getting the goal doesn’t help anything; which is why, while pursuing that goal, they discover a deeper need that will heal them. Which brings us to …
4) Need/Elixir: Main characters are missing something, a weakness in their innermost selves is causing them to live a less-than-wonderful life. Through story, these main characters can be healed. Once they discover what’s missing, and accept it, and change the way they live to include this truth they’ve uncovered … they’re healed. Learning this truth, whatever it is, forms the purpose of the story for the main character. The reader, and the character, think the story is about achieving that big tangible goal the premise talks about; really, underneath it all, the story is about someone achieving a big intangible truth, that will ultimately save their life and future. Often, this need is exactly what the character fears or professes to hate.
Like Finding Nemo, where Dory states exactly what Marlin needs to learn.
Not this kind of ghosts.
Ghosts are events in your character’s past which mark the source of their weaknesses and strengths. Because these happened, the character became who they are. All we need to know about backstory are these moments, because who the character became is all we care about. There’s really only one ghost you absolutely need: the source of their moral and psychological weakness. Something happened that knocked the character’s world off kilter, and everything from that moment onward has been tainted by what happened. This moment haunts them (hence the name), and holds them back from uncovering that need that will heal their weaknesses. Pixar are masters of this: the source of Carl being stuck in the past, curmudgeonly, unable of loving anyone new? Ellie dying; his ghost. In Finding Nemo, the source of Marlin being suffocating, protective to the point of being harmful, possessive, and fearful? His wife and 99% of his children being eaten in front of him; his ghost.
6) True Character: These are the strengths, values, convictions, fears, faults, beliefs, worldview, and outlook on life that make the main character who they truly are.
7) Characterization: This is everything on the surface of a main character. The way they look, talk, act, etc. All of this originates from those deeper elements of their being, the strengths, values, ghosts, weaknesses, needs, that make them who they truly are. So often, you can think of this as a facade they’re projecting, a way to shield the the truth about themselves, how they wish to be perceived. The story, and the other characters, are slowly going to see deeper than this characterization, revealing more and more of the reasons it is the way it is.
8) Arc: If the character is going to change from “Incomplete Person” to “Complete Person” there’s going to be a journey they go on to make that possible. The external story, the pursuit of that big tangible goal the premise is about, is causing an inner journey to take place. What they have to do in pursuit of that external goal will apply pressure to those weaknesses, and pressure causes change. This process has seven steps, but if I write it all here this post is going to be obscenely long. So I might wait and give this its own post.
9) Changed Person: Who is the character going to be at the end of this story? They better be different, or else the story didn’t work. How do they show how different they’ve become? What is the moral choice they make, that spins their trajectory from “the future doesn’t look so great” to “happily ever after”? This should be known right away, maybe even before anything else is settled about the character. This gives a distinct end goal, a way to work backwards, a destination in mind that you can navigate towards.
10) Fascination and Illumination: The surface characterization, and the brief glimpses of the true character underneath create curiosity in the reader/audience. What the character says, and the implied subtext beneath the dialogue, creates a puzzle the audience wants to solve. Actions they take work the same way; if the writer indicates there’s deeper motivation behind why a character behaves in the way they do, we buy into solving that mystery right away. We can’t help it. “Who are you really? Why are you the way you are? And how is that going to effect the story?” These are all the unspoken, almost not consciously acknowledged, questions that fascinating characters provoke. Searching out meaning, connecting the dots to find the truth – we can’t resist this. We’re not fascinated by tons of backstory and exposition about a character; we’re fascinated by story, by mystery, by the technique of withholding information and having to interpret and hunt out the truth on our own. So gradually, the story and the characters will force that character to reveal a little more, and a little more, until we have a complete picture of who this person is. Crucial that this information isn’t told up front. Gradually illuminate it. It’s just like getting to know a real person.
So how does this work in a real character? Let’s take a look at Flynn Rider/Eugene Fitzherbert, because almost everybody has seen that movie.
Moral Weaknesses: He’s selfish. He’s a little greedy. He’s a little rude. He uses his charisma and bravado to keep people at a distance from the real him.
Psychological Weaknesses: Insecurity, fear of vulnerability, feels like the real him (Eugene) would be unwanted, unlovable, and have nothing – just like when he was an orphaned kid. Also, he doesn’t know who he wants to be, what he wants to live for.
Goal: Flynn wants to get that crown. So he has to get Blondie to see the floating lights, so she’ll give it back to him, and then they can part ways as unlikely friends.
Want: Why does he want the crown? What does it mean for him? He actually states it (reluctantly) in song: “I have dreams like you, no really. Just much less touchy feely. They mainly happen somewhere warm and sunny. On an island that I own, tanned and rested and alone. Surrounded by enormous piles of money.” He senses there’s something off in his life, something is missing. But he mistakenly believes this missing piece is money, which will allow him to buy a lonely island, where he can live out his days as Flynn and no one will ever know Eugene.
Need: “All those days chasing down a daydream. All those years living in a blur. All that time never truly seeing, things the way they were. Now she’s here, shining in the starlight. Now she’s here, suddenly I know. If she’s here, it’s crystal clear, I’m where I’m meant to go.” He wants a crown … he needs to fall in love with Rapunzel. He needs to love something more than himself, and find out that love isn’t something to fear and push away. He needs to abandon the 'Tales of Flynnagin Rider’ ambition, and get a more worthwhile, new dream.
Ghost: The source of all of his weaknesses can be linked to his “little bit of a downer” childhood as an orphan. Interestingly, he isn’t aware of another facet of that ghost, and Rapunzel points it out to him. “Was he a thief too?” she asks. He looks taken aback, before answering “Uh, no.” Something’s gone wrong. The choices he’s making are not living up to that original role model.
Characterization: Flynn’s charming, funny, smart, charismatic, and arrogant (in a somehow charming sort of way). He’s also rude, contemptuous, and sarcastic. All traits that help him keep up that 'swashbuckling rogue’ facade, and push people away from the real him.
True Character: Underneath all that, he’s a Disney prince. That pretty much sums it up.
Changed Person: “Started going by Eugene again, stopped thieving, and basically turned it all around.” He started the story as the guarded and evasive Flynn, he ends as the selfless and thoroughly-in-love Eugene.
Fascination and Illumination: Imagine if everything about Flynn had been told, right up front. We know he’s an orphan, we know he’s upheld a fake reputation, we know he’s a kind and loving guy underneath it all, we even know about his “tales of Flynnagin” childhood dream. You know what happens? We like him … but we’re not interested in him. There’s nothing we need to find out. There’s no curiosity. And if there’s no curiosity, and nothing being illuminated, your story’s not going anywhere. So instead, we find out – alongside Rapunzel – more about Flynn as the story progresses. And that is how it should be.
Developing characters in this way, I’ve found, really reduces worries about how “well-rounded” and three dimensional I’ve made them. They feel real to me. And besides helping me create characters, this ten element technique has also let me analyze characters I like, which is strangely fun. It’s a great way to figure out why a character works, what causes them to be so effective, and how you can go about creating them yourself.
Yeah, I’m a bit of a nerd.
But if you want, try it out. Develop a character. Analyze a character. You might find it as useful/fun as I do.
i was talking to some friends about wonder woman today and one of them said how she didn’t like steve, bc wonder woman didn’t need a man, it was supposed to be an empowering film about women and not men
and here’s the thing, we live in a patriarchal society, yet we’re told by women and feminists everywhere that a woman doesn’t need a man, and that’s is entirely true. women don’t need men! but loving a man doesn’t make a woman weak! it doesn’t make wonder woman any less empowering for loving steve! the problem is that female characters are so often lost in the ‘love interest’ trope that they aren’t empowering characters, and are hardly characters at all outside the relationship. but wonder woman, and many more films and tv shows today, aren’t like that anymore! so let’s stop aligning powerful women as not having a man, and non-powerful women as having a man!
a woman loving a man doesn’t make her any less powerful and independant, and we need to stop portraying and seeing it in that light
The year is 1973. The Cold War is at its height, and Berlin is infested with spies and mistrust. When a friend of hers is murdered in his home in Germany, Diana Prince heads to East Berlin in order to unravel the mystery behind the death, and finds that not only is there more to the murder than she first thought, but her pursuit of truth has drawn the attention of a shadowy organization that is not interested in being dragged out into the light, and is willing to try to silence her at any cost.
Up to and including sending a ghost story after her.
Some fans are using Black Panther to diminish Wonder Woman. First of all, Black Panther comes out in 2018 so why the pettiness? They are literally not competing against each other for audiences. One has an Israeli female lead the other has an African-American male lead. There is no good reason to take shots especially when Wonder Woman has proven itself to be a great movie. We don’t know how Black Panther will turn out, and Marvel has dropped the ball multiple times when it comes to portraying their characters. Praising Black Panther is very premature and using it to belittle other movies is immature. Now is Wonder Woman’s time for celebration.
I also don’t know why some Black Panther fans are attacking Wonder Woman based on black representation. Of course it has more black representation when it’s set in Wakanda, Africa. That doesn’t make Wonder Woman any less a champion of social progressivism. Several of the black Amazons did have both action and speaking roles. The goal isn’t one movie trying to represent everyone. The goal is for Hollywood to have more diverse movies. We shouldn’t be fighting over the few movies we have that aren’t about white males and pitting them against each other.
If you’re going to take jabs against Wonder Woman using the
The Dora Milaje, I’ll counter by pointing out the fact that The Dora Milaje in Black Panther are a group of female bodyguards literally under a patriarchy. They don’t even compare with the superhuman, immortal Amazons who are an entire nation of ethnically diverse warrior women with an elected government. Now let’s behave and learn to celebrate both movies for what they contribute to diversity.
1. Friendship is a matter of convenience.
It can be true and beautiful and fun and full of love until she moves to another city for college and finds 10 more people she can ‘connect’ with.
2. You don’t have to pursue a boring degree for a boring job. Yes, your passion is for things that make it harder to fetch money but you have one life. Do you really want to spend it doing something you don’t absolutely love?
If you’re passionate about something, no matter what, you will excel, you will thrive. That’s the key to real success. Not some statistics stating the most lucrative jobs and industries.
3. You will exercise. You will drink more water. You will eat healthier. Not because you’re not beautiful the way you are but because your body deserves to be treated better. It literally has carries you around, has your back and actually has your heart from that first moment to your very last.
4. If they are a bitch to others what makes you think they won’t be one to you when the time comes? How people treat others is always a tell tale of how they will treat you. Pay attention. It’s better than feeling like a fool 6 years later.
5. Cook your own meals sometimes.
You know just the amount of oil, salt and ingredients you want. You may not be a masterchef but you know what your stomach wants.
6. Surround yourself with happiness, inspiration and positivity and a very major part of that is social media. Who you follow is so important. Social media is supposed to be a happy and safe place for you. Choose the right people and the right works to fill your feeds because eventually those fill your mind and heart.
7. Nature is all healing.
It’s the one thing in the beautiful presence of which even the most talkative person like you feels the need to shut up. Nature requires no words. It’s completeness is something to learn from.
8. Your parents live a life apart from being your parents. They have moments you’re not a part of, moments you don’t even know. They have not only had a life before you but also a life with you being there that you don’t know about. That’s okay and that’s not something to be mad about.
9. People will leave you. Always.
Some in days, some in months. There are those who take decades and then there are those who never leave in physical form but withdraw all meaning and that’s when you must leave.
But just because people leave their stay doesn’t become any less wonderful or important.
10. Sometimes the only person you need at 3 am is yourself. Give yourself mode credit. You can always help yourself. It may just take a little longer and be a little harder but you don’t need another person to help you. You are enough. You are strong. You will never disappoint.
11. Music of all type is necessary. Songs that make you cry and the ones that make you think and then those that make you only want to dance.
Everyone is an artist. And your drawings may look like those of a middle school kid but isn’t your joy just like hers?
13. Read more books. Yes, you’re older now and busier too but ‘busy ’ is an excuse and you know it.
Find time for something that saved you. Find time for something that you love.
14. Lipstick is life.
People may stare at you and they may get intimidated by certain shades but that’s okay, one smile and they will be at peace.
15. Click more selfies and click them without any shame.
If you’re happy, if you look at yourself and feel like capturing that one moment where you feel good about yourself - go fucking ahead.
Capture all your happiness, beauty and goofy-ness.
But remember, they are for you and not your social media.
16. There’s literally no way you can help someone without helping yourself.
And they may give you nothing in return and they may be ungrateful but who cares?
They aren’t half the person you are and you can shrug it off and move on but remember unlike you, Karma never forgets.
Also, karma is only a bitch if you are.
The darkest moment is the very moment before sunrise. It’s a fact.
So 2016 may have been your darkest time but that only means the sunlight of happiness and inspiration and love awaits you in 2017.