Three dimensional characters

Photo: photosteve101
Today's article is a guest post by a fellow sci-fi and fantasy author, K.C. May, who describes how to create three dimensional characters when writing fiction.

When we read a good book, we instinctively know when the characters are three-dimensional and when they're flat. It's not always easy to identify the qualities that make a character seem fleshed-out, but I've been reading a book that does a great job identifying those otherwise elusive three dimensions. It's called Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. I recommend it to all writers who want to improve their storytelling. Here they are in a nutshell, and how I've applied these concepts to the main character in my fantasy series, The Kinshield Saga.

First dimension: the mask we wear to the outside world. The image we want to project -- athlete, valley girl, slob, professional, goth, soldier, etc.

Second dimension: the backstory and inner demons -- the real reason we choose the mask we wear, the excuse for the first dimension.

Third dimension: action, behavior and worldview -- the true character, who they are on the inside that determines what they do when the chips are down.

My fantasy series is about the adventures of a man who must solve mysteries of the past to bring peace to his country and to his own tortured soul. Here's how I've defined his character in terms of the three dimensions.

First dimension
Gavin Kinshield defines himself outwardly as a protector. He assumes the role of a warrant knight (a cross between a federal marshal and a street cop) because he wants to be seen as strong, reliable, and confident. He comes across at times as vulgar or raw because that fits his crass sense of humor.

Second dimension
The reason Gavin chose the protector mask is because he feels responsible for his father's death. When he was twelve years old, he saw his father get slaughtered by a bear. From the age of fourteen, he has intervened on behalf of people in danger, trying to build and strengthen his image as a protector, and yet everyone important to him is hurt or killed under his watch.
He feels tremendous guilt over his failings as a protector and provider, and because of them, feels he doesn't deserve the power that is rightfully his (and is being thrust upon him). He even took a wife out of a sense of duty, not because he thought he deserved love.

Third dimension
Gavin is a leader at heart, a king, the one who's supposed to be protected. People naturally look to him for decisions and guidance because he radiates power and benevolence. In the face of great danger, he puts the good of the people over his own safety. He gives what he can to those in need, trying his best not to use funds and resources unnecessarily when there are people without homes and children without enough to eat.

We often think of a character's motivations as being at the core of who he is, but those motivations are really only the middle layer. To test our characters, we have to put them in situations that challenge their world view and force them to act in such a way as to reveal who they truly are deep down inside. A true leader will always choose the needs of the many over the needs of the few, just as a narcissist will always pad his own pockets before acting in defense of the greater good, even if the narcissist is in a leadership role.

The characters we fall in love with as readers are the ones whose true nature is brought to light by their circumstances and the choices they make even at the cost of their own self-image or personal desires.

K.C. May
science fiction & fantasy author

K.C. MAY was born in Chicago and grew up in the mid-western USA and in Hawaii, attended University of Colorado in Boulder and graduated with a B.A. in Russian from Florida State University. In 1985, she moved to Taiwan to teach English and study Mandarin Chinese. Her writing career officially started in 2005 when her fantasy novel The Kinshield Legacy was published by a small press. In 2010, she retreated from the Arizona desert to cooler, greener Georgia. That was also the year she got the rights back for her first novel, which resurrected her writing career. She earns her living as a full-time writer at a large software company.

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Read my review of The Venom of Vipers.