Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tools for Creating a 3D Character

I've invited fellow author, Kimberley Dehn, to come by as a guest blogger and share her expertise on Creating 3D Characters. Kim is the author of the romantic comedy, Southern Exposure-one of the funniest, most enjoyable novels I've read in a very long time. The book finaled for a 2009 EPIC e-Book Award, and rightfully so.

While Kim is here, I'm going to slip over to her blog and talk about Research (link appears at the end). Please stop by.


I’ve yet to meet a writer who picks a character out of the blue and fits her into a plot. For me, plot and character go hand in hand in a joint effort to flesh out both story and character growth.

Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation and Conflict method of character and plot development combined opened doors for zillions of writers like me. I cannot begin to write a story until I use Deb’s GMC chart. With a plot idea in mind, sometimes nothing more than a scene or a vague character sketch, I begin fleshing out the character by using the chart. What does my character want (goal), why do they want it (motivation) and why can’t they have it (conflict). The chart helps you to delve beyond the surface of both internal and external emotions and needs. Once I have a strong chart, for me, the plot takes on a new life.

I next try out names. One of my favorites is Character Naming by Sherrilyn Kenyon. The book is divided into ethnic diverse lists, and has a paragraph up front telling about that particular naming system. The lists offer surnames, female and male lists, with meanings attached to each name. Not only does it include the usual Anglo, French, German, Italian…but also Egyptian, Persian, Polish, Thai, Portuguese and the like. Celebrity sidebars give insight to how authors like Hallie Ephron, Jennifer Crusie, and Jodi Picoult name their characters.

I keep note of several possible names because sometimes, when a plot gets rolling, you may discover the name you originally picked doesn’t work. I originally named the heroine of Southern Exposure, Mikki Highsmith. I needed a spoiled rich girl. However, as my story smoothed out into a coherent plot, I realized I needed her to be softer. Not a hard caricature. I renamed her Katharine Hubbard with the nickname Kat. Just by changing her name, my opinion on her changed, and she became someone I would enjoy hanging out with instead of someone I rolled my eyes over. Names are the ultimate in character development. Names give the reader an unconscious impression about the character. Find that hard to believe? What if Margaret Mitchell called her hero Wilbert Walker instead of Rhett Butler?

After I have a name, I interview the character. I have been interviewing my characters for twenty-some years, long before I became remotely serious about publishing, never realizing it was a big deal until author Vicki Hinze asked me if she could include my interview questions in a writer’s handbook she was developing. Through Vicki and like authors, my character interview took momentum and now more writers than not are use it.

I imagine I am sitting down with my character to ask her questions. Not the bland, boring type of questions like where were you born, blah blah. I am my character’s trusted confidant and I’m there to get her to open up and tell me her deepest, darkest secrets. To unload, so to speak, about what might be bothering her. I hope it pertains to the plot I’m trying to develop but ya know…sometimes my character surprises me. She will tell me things that will sometimes destroy my original plot sketch and open up a whole new can of worms, but in a good way!

The interview is all about the emotion. Even light, funny plots can become emotional and therefore give a richer, satisfying layer to your plot, if you let go of your need to make your characters do what you want them to do, and instead allow them to become who they are. Anyone who is not a writer will think… ‘Okay. Call the funny farm. I’ve got me a live one here.’ But you know--if you’re a writer--you know what I’m talking about. How characters take on a life of their own, write themselves and you as the author are nothing more than the conduit to get them on page so they can breathe and tell their story.

Fleshing out personalities can be both fun and exasperating. The idea of course is to make your character people 3D and realistic. This is when I pull out Love Lives by Carole Golder. Its intention to is build relationships through astrology using star signs, but I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful as a writer to know what sign my character was born under and use the personality aspects that go with that sign to round out my characters. The book will flesh out a sign, like Capricorn, and describe the signs personality aspects in detail. Then it says…How you see Taurus. How Taurus sees you…and so on throughout all the signs. The later part of the books talks about the Capricorn Man. The Capricorn Woman. This book has been on my shelf for at least fifteen years, and no, you cannot borrow it. It’s become that sacred to me as a writer.

There are so many books out there to help you create a rich, 3D, fully developed character for whatever plot you’re striving for. I’ve listed below some of the books I’ve used over the years. The trick is finding what works for you.

Love Lives, using astrology to build the perfect relationship with any star sign, by Carole Golder
Creating Character Emotions, writing compelling, fresh approaches that express your characters’ true feelings, by Ann Hood
Creating Characters, how to build story people, by Dwight V. Swain
Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon
Goal Motivation and Conflict, the building blocks of good fiction by Debra Dixon
Kimberley Dehn © 2010

Kimberley Dehn
Author*Humorist*Pathological Storyteller


Infogypsy said...

Hi Kim - great ideas - I HAVE to name my characters and flesh them out before I can even imagine beginning to write - and name the book as well. As for Deb Dixon - my very first workshop was with her before I wrote a word - what a great workshop she does! As a pantser, I'm not big on GMC (I did it in her workshop but decided it was too confining for my flitty mind) but it certainly is useful for most authors. Her dad wrote a book as well, for those who write suspense, called The Only Cop in Town - a great research book. Good posting - I'll dash over to your blog and read Linda's now - judi

Victoria Roder said...

I enjoyed your post and I liked your information on interviewing characters.

Fiona McGier said...

Interesting stuff here. When I'm writing I usually imagine the character first...naming them is one of the last things I do. I will have whole scenes in my head, then I will realize I have to give a name to the person being spoken to, (or whose name is being screamed!;-D)

Kaylin McFarren said...

I totally enjoyed reading about your process, Kim - especially the character interviews. I keep journals for mine but quizzing them is a great idea! :)

Susan Gabriel said...

Excellent blog and much appreciated. Personally I always have to have a name for my character before I even write one word about them. It helps me define the essentials of who they are. I love the idea of interviewing my character! I also have a bulletin board where I place pictures that resemble my characters. It helps for me to actually see their faces rather than just visualize them in my head. Thanks for the blogpost!

linda_rettstatt said...


Thanks for being here this weekend. I usually have to force myself into any kind of structure, but some of your points are easy enough to do and make the job much lighter as I get further into my story.

Thanks so much.


Carol McPhee said...

I don't consciously think about GMC until I'm several chapters into the story. usually I find it's been covered automatically because how can you have a story without defining the aspects right off the bat. That's what hooks the reader. Excellent article here and I enjoyed reading it. Carol McPhee

Janice Robinson said...

Great blog Kim. When you can connect to a character on different levels it brings life to the book you are reading. It imprints it on your memory so that those characters pop up in your mind during life. It's funny to run into someone like Kat and makes them so endearing to you.

When I am done with a book, I want to feel like I've just left a family or person I've known for years.

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone for your gracious comments. Susan--I like to "cast" my characters using actual celebrities either in entertainment or politics...which is kinda like entertainment, isn't it? The reason for this is, I want to be able to see them move, hear their voices. Just one more way to help me bring my character people to life.

Angelica Hart and Zi said...

Great depth and through went into this 3D blog. Also, enjoyed the comments as much as the blog, seeing the differences that exists in all our writing styles. Thanks for sharing.

linda_rettstatt said...

I want to thank Kim Dehn for her post this weekend. Be sure to check out her romantic comedy, Southern Exposure. You'll laugh out loud, I promise.


Suzette Saxton said...

Nice blog! Great idea to interview characters. ;)