Writing Three-Dimensional Characters

Every story has characters. The richness of your writing depends on how you go about developing that character into a three-dimensional being.

Today, I’m going to discuss one way to go about creating characters that will make your story shine.

First of all, what makes a three-dimensional character?

It all comes down to your prose and showing rather than telling. You can’t just describe the character, you need to bring them to life.

How do you do that?

You use every available narrative device to build your character from the ground up.

Here is one way to accomplish this task:

Think about your character from their head to their toes – imagine them in your mind before you begin to write. Some people use pictures from the internet, while others use their mind’s eye to conjure up an image.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers only think about the head. In fact if you look at some novice writers’ character descriptions, the often read something like this:

‘Jules had long brown hair and beautiful deep brown eyes.’

While this description is at least factual, we can only imagine a head with long brown hair and lovely eyes. We know that Jules doesn’t have short black hair or green eyes.

Yet, staying at head level for now, what if we said:

Jule’s long hair gave her a feminine look. The kohl she had started wearing recently amplified the piercing and perceptive quality of her green eyes.

While some may say the description here is too much, writers need to decide for themselves what is too little, or too much. And while this description goes a bit further, it lacks concrete detail and specificity.

But we do find out a few more things about Jules:

  • We know what’s changed about her recently
  • One aspect of how her looks hint at her gender
  • Character qualities suggested by appearance (intensity, intuition)

What else can we do to help the reader envision your character?

Next, let’s think about  how ‘The clothes make the man or woman.’

Mark Twain is alleged to have said, ‘The clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.’

As readers, we know that clothes, of course, make living beings of every or any gender, gender flexibility or absence of gender. In today’s world, there are more than two genders to portray, and a carefully crafted description can show who the character is WITHOUT using labels.

Clothes may signal:

  • Intent: For example, dressing formally (or infornally) for a job interview or conservatively to communicate respect for another culture
  • Status or title: A queen’s crown, a beauty queen’s tiara
  • Rank: For example, the Papal ferula or pastoral staff used by the Pope in the Catholic Church
  • Personality: One person may favour concealing or baggy clothing while another prefers skimpier, revealing clothing
  • Profession or educational status: A librarian’s reading glasses, a chef’s hat, an air steward or schoolboy’s fedora

Here is a character description that I’ve found in several writing sources as a good example: It conveys the hero Pip’s sister’s proud and reproachful nature in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations:

My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against [her husband] Joe, that she wore this apron so much.

Charles Dickens, in Great Expectations (1861)

Use language to embody emotion

Creating a three-dimensional character isn’t only a task for description, of course.

You need to use the rhythm, tone and quality of the language we use in narration. All of these things contribute to an impression of character.

I really like this example of a belligerent chef who dents his pots when he’s in a rage:

Bang. He swung another down hard on a stone counter corner. A pot’s lid clattered to the floor as he plonked the dented casserole down, scowling.

These short phrases and the explosive alliteration of ‘p’ and ‘t’ sounds (known as plosive consonants) create a sense of the character’s jerky, angry movements.

Making the setting do character work

Often, we think that setting and character are two separate areas of writing.

In the last example, we wrote about a chef, his characterization as a volatile man, and the setting. I’ve already written about how to use setting to drive plot. 

It is more than possible to involve setting in character description to create a richer sense of tone, mood and state of mind.

To illustrate this point, I found an example by Barbara Kingsolver to illustrate this in the workbook How to Write Real Characters: Character description – from Writers Write.

“Take this baby,” she said. […]

The child had the exact same round eyes. All four of those eyes were
hanging there in the darkness, hanging on me, waiting. The
Budweiser sign blinked on and off, on and off, throwing a faint light
that made the whites of their eyes look orange.’

Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees, p. 17.

In this scene, the author captures the moment a baby is foisted on her protagonist at a rest stop.

The neon light of the Budweiser sign, reflected in the eyes of the desperate woman and the child, add a layer of quiet pathos to their situation.’

Evoke habits (and changes in them)

Characters, just like people we encounter daily, are often, of course, creatures of habit. Yet conflicts and other schisms often shake us out of routines. This is one of the reasons conflict is crucial to stories. They often supply a reason for change, a reason for story.

Consider this description of a change in habit on page one of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: (from Writers Write)

‘Everything had gone wrong in the Oblonsky household. The wife had found out about her husband’s relationship with their former French governess and had announced that she could not go on living in the same house with him […] The wife did not leave her own rooms and the husband stayed away from home all day. The children strayed all over the house, not knowing what to do with themselves. […]

‘On the third morning after the quarrel, Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky – Stiva, as he was generally called by his friends – awoke at his usual time, which was about eight o’clock, not in his wife’s bedroom but on a morocco-leather couch in his study.’

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (translated by Rosemary Edmonds), p. 13.

The details Tolstoy includes – the children’s ‘straying’ all over the house like lost cats, Stiva alone on his ‘morocco-leather’ couch – provide a sense of characters’ habits and changes caused by the upset of Stiva’s infidelity.

…fame of his accomplishments was so widespread that on occasion distinguished visitors who had traveled from the interior on the riverboats would ask permission to see him…’

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), p 20.

The delight of the parrot’s vast repertoire of imitations (the doctor also teaches him ‘to speak French like an academician’) provides a keen and lively sense of character. This imitative prowess builds the parrot’s celebrity.

Until next time,

~Mustang Patty~

The Starting Point – Effective Writing

One of the easiest ways to self-edit is to begin with effective writing. While you are writing the second and third drafts, you need to concentrate on the principles I will discuss in this blog.

Currently, I’m editing the short stories that are coming in for the latest Anthology – 2021 Indie Authors’ Short Story Anthology – due out on July 4, 2021.

Most of these stories are written by somewhat seasoned writers who know how to tell a story and most of these elements are present in their writing. However, it is rare to find ALL of these elements in the short stories that most of us write.

How do you write clearly and effectively? In his book, Style: The Art of Writing Well, (Cassell), F.L. Lucas offered the following basic principles to “shorten that painful process” of learning how to write better.

1. Brevity

It is bad manners to waste [the reader’s] time. Therefore, brevity first, then, clarity.

2. Clarity

It is bad manners to give [readers] needless trouble. Therefore clarity… . And how is clarity to be achieved? Mainly by taking trouble and by writing to serve people rather than to impress them.

3. Communication

The social purpose of language is communication—to inform, misinform, or otherwise influence our fellows… . Communication [is] more difficult than we may think. We are all serving life sentences of solitary confinement within our bodies; like prisoners, we have, as it were, to tap in awkward code to our fellow men in their neighboring cells… .

In some modern literature there has appeared a tendency to replace communication by a private maundering to oneself which shall inspire one’s audience to maunder privately to themselves—rather as if the author handed round a box of drugged cigarettes.

4. Emphasis

Just as the art of war largely consists of deploying the strongest forces at the most important points, so the art of writing depends a good deal on putting the words in the most important places… .

An editor once told me to choose ‘radiant’ words. It took me a long time to come to understanding what she meant. Not only is it important to choose the right words, but it is important to put these significant words in the right order – the reader needs to understand exactly what you mean.

Each word in a sentence needs to build to the climax. The importance of the last word cannot be emphasized enough – it is the last thing you leave your reader to understand.

5. Honesty

It is difficult to ALWAYS be honest in your writing, but it is an essential element of good writing. Think of it as a challenge to reveal your true self – AND remember that research allows you to tell an informed story. You cannot fool all of your readers if you don’t understand or know what you are talking about in your stories.

Conversely, most style is not honest enough. Easy to say, but hard to practice. A writer may take to long words, as young men to beards—to impress. But long words, like long beards, are often the badge of charlatans. Or a writer may cultivate the obscure, to seem profound. But even carefully muddied puddles are soon fathomed. Or he may cultivate eccentricity, to seem original.

But truly original people do not have to think about being original—they can no more help it than they can help breathing. They do not need to dye their hair green.

6. Passion and Control

I think this principle is one that is so essential – but it isn’t easy to learn. The eternal paradoxes of both life and literature are that without passion little gets done; yet, without control of that passion, its effects are largely ill or null.

7. Reading

Most authors grew up as readers. It is essential that one learns to write by reading good books, as one learns to talk by hearing good talkers. An author doesn’t read runs into the trap of stale writing. READ to gain new ideas, observe the use of good grammar, and the construction of scenes.  

8. Revision

Every author should possess not only with a pen but also a blue (or red,) pencil. We are all victim to falling in love with our own words – we don’t want to cut a single thing. Let’s face it: everything on the page isn’t important OR fits into these basic principles.

Until next time,

~Mustang Patty~

The Rewrite

I’m currently working on the editing for this years’ upcoming Indie Author Short Story Anthology. I have the pleasure of working with writers who bring a great deal of enthusiasm and creativity to their short stories.

As I go through the process of editing their stories, I will comment briefly on grammar and syntax, but mostly I want to look at the big picture. 

(I also tell the writers that the story is theirs – I will not make suggestions to take the story in a different direction – I will NOT rewrite their story.)

But when I ask these writers to go back and look at something, I’m asking them to do self-editing.

Those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to be able to afford professional editors are usually on our own. (Probably why I’ve taken editng courses.)

But where do you start?

I’ve suggested the following things to look at when you are first approaching the editing process. These items are essential to a good story.

If you think of your story’s first draft as a sketch, you can see how it is a rough piece of writing where you’ve worked on the shape. Only through the writing and editing process, will you have completed the work.

Richard North Patterson says: ‘Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with the first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing.’

Michael Crichton said: ‘Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.’

Mustang Patty’s Rewriting Checklist for Authors

While it is important to remember that a short story differs from a novel, it can be said that most of the same elements need to be present – just in fewer words, less detail, and less time. HOWEVER, you cannot shortcut the MC, the plot, or the resolution.

Have you introduced the setting and taken the reader there?

Is there an inciting moment?

Have you adequately introduced your MC?

Is the genre of your story clear?

Is there enough dialogue? (Try for 50%)

Have you made promises to the reader? (Told them what you’re going to tell them?) DID YOU?

Is there enough conflict?

Have you explained something in the narrative and repeated it in dialogue? (Eliminate the description – the dialogue is ‘showing,’ and the narrative is usually ‘telling.’)

Does your MC have a distinct voice? (Or is it the same voice all your MC characters have – usually yours?)

Have you done a spell check?

Have you looked at your sentence structure? Is there a variation? Are there too many long sentences? Short? Detailed?

Have you removed unnecessary adverbs?

Have you removed unnecessary adjectives?

Have you cut out cliches?

Have you reduced the use of passive voice?

Is your POV consistent?

Is your tense consistent?

Is your pacing correct for the story?

Have you built tension?

Have you made your reader care about your characters? (Whether it is love or hate – you’ve evoked that emotion.)

Until next time – when we will continue to discuss the Editing Process,

~Mustang Patty~

Make it happen: how to accomplish your SMART goals

For the past few Blog entries, I’ve discussed SMART Goals, and written about how to write SMART goals – but knowing how to achieve them is a totally separate challenge.

So, you’ve already taken a great first step by using the SMART criteria to set attainable, measurable, results-based targets. But there are a few other ways to set yourself up for success.

1. Write down your goal

You’ve established your goal… now what? Should you just let it rattle around in your brain until it’s over and done? Nope. You should write it down.

Jotting down your goal serves as a solid reminder of what you and your team members are working toward – but there’s some neuroscience at play here too.

A study conducted by Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at the Dominican University in California, found that people are 42 percent more likely to achieve their goals when they write them down.

2. Set regular check-ins

It’s not enough to have the goal written down, put it in a drawer, or even under the glass on your desktop – and THEN FORGET IT.

We’re all familiar with that rush of excitement we feel when we’re about to tackle something new. But once you get a little further in, that feeling quickly fades — it’s why so many New Years’ resolutions are kicked to the curb by February.

Any goal worth achieving probably won’t happen overnight, and it’s important to check in on your progress regularly to ensure you aren’t falling off track.

Having recurring reminders will keep the goal in the front of your mind and work process.

3. Celebrate your wins (even the small ones)

Don’t wait until your entire goal is accomplished to celebrate; recognizing smaller wins and milestones can keep you moving in the right direction. I’ll spare you the in-depth science lesson, but, essentially, you get a dopamine spike whenever you anticipate that something important is about to happen (like accomplishing something you set out to do).

That’s what triggers a motivation boost.

So, by setting smaller, incremental goals and then giving ourselves a hearty pat on the back when we achieve them, we can increase those dopamine spikes, which in turn encourage us to stay the course.

Until then,

~Mustang Patty~

T is for Time-bound

The last letter in SMART goals is the T. Not only does this represent the need for a deadline, but it also encourages the writer to explore their plan for a defined amount of time.

In other words, each of your goals should have time-related parameters built-in. This gives you additional structure and allows you to stay on track – rather than have a new story written by Tuesday, you will be encouraged to write and edit each day. 

IF your goal doesn’t have a deadline, there is no urgency and less motivation to achieve the goal.

When setting your goal, ask yourself the following:

1. Does my goal have a deadline?

2. By when do you want to achieve your goal?

Next time, we will summarize SMART goals before we move onto the next subject.

Until then,

~Mustang Patty~

R is for Realistic

When we talk about a Realistic goal, the plan is achievable given the available resources and time.

One way to test whether the goal is realistic is if YOU believe that it can be accomplished.

Ask yourself:

Is the goal realistic and within reach?

1.   In the last steps, a measurable and attainable number of words was set to achieve the goal. Ask the following questions to further evaluate those numbers.

2.   Is the goal reachable, given the time and resources?

3.   Are you able to commit to achieving the goal?

I feel that this step is vital in the process. Once you’ve evaluated the goal as realistic and ensured that YOU are committed to achieving the parameters you’ve set, you’re well on your well to accomplishing the goal.

Next time, we will look at ‘T’ for Timebound,

Until then,

~Mustang Patty~

A for Attainable

When doing any goal setting, you want to make sure that the tasks are truly something you can do. I think that an excellent example of ‘attainable’ is the challenge that many writers know of, and either love or hate, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNo for short.

The challenge is to write 50,000 words in one month. The challenge has been further broken down into 1667 words per day. While that number may sound daunting – if you allow yourself to write for four hours each day, that is only a little over four-hundred words in an hour, if you can only count on being able to write for two hours, that is slightly over eight-hundred words.

During NaNo, the critical thing to remember is that you aren’t writing the perfect copy; you’re merely getting the rough story in your head down on paper. I find that if I just sit and let the words flow, I can quickly write 100 words per 15 minutes – I type around 60 words per minute, so I’m keeping up with my thoughts at a nice pace. I can knock out my allotted word count easily.

Most novels are between 80 and 100 thousand words. They are your polished and well-edited thoughts and story. Within one year, 365 days, is it possible to write your novel in a year?

Yes, it is.

However, your role is more than just writing. It is developing a process where you can write, and edit, and refine reliably.

So, while setting a specific, measurable goal, you also need to make it something that you can commit to and do.

Next time, we will address the R in S.M.A.R.T. – Realistic,

Until then,


~Mustang Patty~

M for Measurable

In my last two blogs, I started a discussion about S.M.A.R.T. goals. Last time, I wrote about the ‘S.’

Specificity is a solid start, but once you apply a NUMBER to your goal – it becomes measurable. Setting a quantity or making sure they are measurable allows you to track your progress, check in on yourself, and gives you a feeling of accomplishment.

A few examples for your writing:

Your main goal is to write a novel next year.

You’ve been more specific – Write one chapter per month. (This is the first number in your goal setting – let’s move to the next.)

On each weekday, you are going to write 350 words of the chapter (2nd measurable goal.)

With five weekdays in TWO weeks, you will have 3500 words to edit.

During the third week of the month, you will edit and eliminate 500 words – making your work clearer, cleaner, and more concise.

During the fourth week of the month, you will do another edit – your 3rd draft – and you will work on one editing step each day. The Steps are for Content, Construction, Style, Grammar, and Punctuation.

Setting these goals (One Chapter, 350 words per day for 10 days, editing to eliminate at least 500 words, a 3rd Edit) allows you to have daily, weekly, and a monthly goal. As the month progresses, you have these mini goals to check off, allowing you to feel accomplished.

In my next blog, we will look at making your goals ATTAINABLE.

Until next time,

~Mustang Patty~

S for Specific

Setting goals needs to dig down into the details. The most important thing is to be SPECIFIC. Instead of saying, “Next year, I will write my novel,” try to break the goal into steps, and the details.

Only by being specific, will your goal be effective. When you break writing a novel down into pieces, you can check off your accomplishments and move on to the next steps.

When writing, a specific goal could answer questions like:

  • What kind of book/short story are you writing?
  • What steps will you take? Break the goal down into small steps.
    • Create your Protagonist
    • Create your Antagonist
    • Will there be supporting characters?
    • What is your setting?
    • Create a setting that is as realistic as possible
    • (And so on)

When you think about these things, you are on your way to setting a measurable and realistic goal. When you start to set your time table, make sure you are setting dates that are attainable.

My next blog entry will discuss the importance of setting Measurable goals.

Until next time,

~Mustang Patty~

S.M.A.R.T. Goals and your Writing

One of the buzzword that flies around from time to time is SMART goals. The hype is that everyone should set goals – but they need to be SMART.

That’s a great premise, but first you need to understand what is so special about these goals.

It all lies in the word, SMART. It is an acronym for how these goals are defined. The ‘S’ stands for Specific, the ‘M’ stands for Measurable, the ‘A’ stands for Attainable, the ‘R’ stands for Realistic, and finally the ‘T’ stands for Time-bound.

When applying these principles to the goals you set yourself – and for those of us who are writers, it quickly becomes apparent that setting this type of goal will help us write daily, create short stories, and finally write books.

(You can’t write a book unless you write, and it’s extremely difficult to reach 50K to 80K words if you don’t set daily, weekly, and even monthly goals. Each of those words need to be written by YOU.)

So, instead of saying you have a goal to write a book someday, you are really stating a hope. Instead, if you set SMART goals, they will help you turn a ‘hope’ into reality.

When setting a SMART goal, you will work through each of the five components to build a measurable goal that speaks to exactly what you want to accomplish. By going through the process, you will know exactly what needs to be accomplish by when, and how you’ll know when you’re successful.

Come back on Wednesday when I’ll delve more into the ‘S’ of the acronym. Specific goals are a good way to start.

Until next time,

~Mustang Patty~

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