The Writers Circle

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Writing in 3D

We’ve all heard it before. “Your character’s flat. You need to make him three-dimensional.”

Sure, great. But what exactly does that mean?

We all know we live in a three dimensional world. We learn it in grade school: a line, a plane, a cube… But how do you make a character three dimensional? Do you make him really fat? Do you give him a limp so he wobbles when he walks, thereby taking up more space?

Believe it or not, I’ve tried both, and no, that’s not what it means. Three-dimensional means you have to dig deeper.


Take that character with the limp, for example. It’s fine to describe him walking, every struggle to get his footing, every attempt to hide his frailty and vulnerability. Ah! There’s the hint that I need… his vulnerability. There’s where I begin to ask: why is he vulnerable? How does he feel about his limp? And, even more pressing, how did he get the limp in the first place?

It was only when I start asking these questions that the concept of three-dimensionality begins to come clear.

For me, it often starts with the physical. I was a dancer, once upon a time, and an actress after that. I’m pretty sensitive to subtle inflections of voice and shifts of movement – how they can reveal what a character is feeling. I often get up and act out what my characters are doing in a particular scene. Still, the physical is just the start. It’s getting beyond the external to the why’s, the how’s; for my poor man with the limp, it’s the who-does-he-think-of-every-time-he-takes-a-step, the source of dread that haunts his soul every time he trips or stumbles. Answering those questions gives me a character, not with a flaw, but with a life.

But not everyone feels comfortable getting up and acting out their scenes. How can you develop a 3D character without feeling like an utter fool in the privacy of your writing room?

The answer came to me about a month ago when Michelle Cameron and I were teaching a workshop on Creating Character. I had come armed with a few simple physical exercises for the writers at hand, but sensed in their awkward giggles that I wouldn’t get much beyond giving them some key details and letting them walk around in a circle for a couple of minutes “in someone else’s skin”. It worked well enough. But I realized I had to break it down.

I was jotting notes while Michelle asked the group, “What makes a character three-dimensional?”

“They’re quirky…. Idiosyncratic…. They have a heart…. A sense of humor…. A purpose for being…. They’re relatable…. Unpredictable…. They have room to grow.”

All the while, I’d been thinking about time – how time forms us and forces us to take actions, sometimes ones we never would have planned, that change the course of everything. And about how time slowly nips away at us until the “I” who once was is unrecognizable to the “I” that is now.

“To make a character three-dimensional,” I popped up, “is simple. All they need is a past, present and future.”

I’d drawn a little diagram, nothing special, but it illustrated the point.


“We are formed by our past. Everything we are comes from those first experiences, those memories: the hug we never got, or the helicopter mom, the fire we escaped, or the first love that cannot be matched or compared. And we all have a future – our wants, our needs, our expectations, our plans. Everything we do today – we as people and as characters – is propelled toward our future but shaped by our past, so that the choices we make are rooted in a complete and authentic reality and the desires we attempt to achieve are bolstered or thwarted by everything we drag behind. It’s simple!”

OK, it’s not simple. And I doubt I said it as articulately at the time, but I saw it in my head. It was an epiphany formed instantaneously there in that class. And suddenly I knew that all those years I’d spent in acting classes, sitting in the back of the theater jotting down pages of character notes – their background, parents, old relationships, losses and loves – I was doing what we all need to be doing every day as we get to know our characters.

And, just like in those acting days, we should do it “off-page”. Not in the context of the beautiful words you are drafting for your elegantly crafted scenes, but messy, in a notebook or a bullet-pointed list, so you don’t have to worry if it sounds right or makes any sense at all to anyone but you.


You only have to explore, imagine, and decide, “Yes, he fell out of a tree when he was five. He broke his leg in three places. But he was in the woods. Too far to be heard. Crying… Crying and no one heard him. Finally in the dark, they came with flashlights and shadowed scowls. But the skin was cut. Infection had set in. The bones never set quite right, and since then, all the running, climbing, exploring. No more. And then in school…”

And suddenly the character has gained the inherent mass of a loss, fear, struggle and sadness. Limping forward, all he wants in all the world is to climb and run again.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

2 comments on “Writing in 3D

  1. Gaston Prereth
    October 14, 2011

    Interesting points and I do agree in general, but not completely.

    To me, a 3D character is all about the writers understanding of their characters beliefs and desires. Too often a character becomes flat because they are just a mouth piece of the author and don’t seem to have any desires of their own, or beliefs that the narrator doesn’t hold.

    If scribbling down a backstory in a note book helps you get to that understanding, then great. I’ve done the same from time to time, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I think the author just needs to (this sounds so clichéd) make friends with their characters. Write a scene in a weird location just to see how the character reacts, get to know the character’s ‘character’ not just their life story.

    I believe It’s not about the details of their backstory, as such, it’s about the fact that they have some sort of backstory. Everything they believe has come from somewhere, the author doesn’t need to know exactly where, they just need to acknowledge the character has come from somewhere.

    Gaston. (sorry hastily written the office is being closed and I don’t have a key to lock up!)

  2. Pat Sodolak
    October 20, 2011

    Loved your diagram and thoughts on 3D characters. A very wise friend of mine says that life is like a baseball game with 9 innings except that we play out all 9 innings at the same time. In one area of our life, we might still be 7 years old while in another area we are 42, etc. So, your man with a limp could be a highly successful businessman of 42 because he devoted himself to his studies after the accident while his love life is stuck at 16 due to a poor self image of his body and his playful childhood side stopped the day he fell out of the tree. In this sense he is now n-dimensional. Some innings may never complete and some innings may not have started yet because they are dependent on previous innings completing. So, perhaps he must find a way to run and play again before he can connect in love and begin the mature relationship inning. He needs to get unstuck before his life can move forward.

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