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Three Keys to Believable Three-Dimensional Characters | IFW

Know their names, their motivations, and their fears.

When you sit down to write a new story, chances are you’re going to start by developing one of these elements: characterization, setting, or plot.

Yeah, I nailed it. But before I strain my shoulder patting myself on the back, I may as well admit it was kind of a no-brainer. Those are the three key facets of any story. But here’s something you might not have known: Giving characters heart, soul, and some mighty real faults—yes, faults—is vital to creating memorable characters.

Three Aspects of Great Characterization

Today we’ll touch on names, motivations, and fears. Every character—major or minor—needs to be properly developed and fleshed out. There’s no sense adding someone to your story if he’s going to sit there like a splat of Gulden’s spicy brown mustard on Mom’s otherwise-immaculate kitchen floor. Whether it’s your protagonist, antagonist, comic relief, or a minor sympathetic character, every single one must have a purpose. You can’t just drop somebody into the mix because your best friend begged you to include her as a character in your novel.

What’s in a Name?

Every character needs an identity—which, it may come as a surprise to you to learn, is so much more than just a name! It’s her background, her sense of self, her breadth and depth of knowledge and/or experience, her likes, dislikes, and personality. But a name comprises an important part of a character’s identity.

As readers, we associate characters most closely with names. When you read the name “Tiny Tim,” you either envision that wild-haired dude from the 1960s, ukulele in hand, tiptoeing madly (and off-key) through the tulips… or that dear little moppet on crutches from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Admit it. You’ve identified the character by his name. And whichever one you’ve conjured, you’ve likely got a strong visual image—all because of a name. So, while I contend a name is but a small part of a character’s overall identity, it is the simplest means by which the author distinguishes one character from another. And a name is not something to be assigned lightly.

Think for a moment about these two names: Ebenezer Scrooge and Severus Snape. They exude, respectively, stinginess and malevolence. That’s because over the years those two literary identities have become synonymous with those particular traits. To paraphrase my all-time favorite film: It’s the name that inspires the necessary fear. And quoting now, “You see, no one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley.” (Five extra points if you guessed the movie before reading the quote.)

Now that we’ve established the importance of character names, how do you decide on one? Sometimes the right name emerges in the character-development phase. Other times, you can take clues from language. In my novel, Glimpse of Emerald, Monsignor Ernst Streng is described as the “silver-haired headmaster with atrophied smile muscles” who droned on in a thick European accent while “a deep frown creased his face, drawing his entire countenance sharply downward.” A few pages later, his tone was defined as “starched.” This paints for the reader a distinct image of an austere, inflexible older man. To arrive at this minor (albeit pivotal) character’s name, I toyed with a few words in his native German: Ernst means “serious” and Streng is the German translation of “strict”—both of which happen to neatly describe our fictional headmaster.

Just as you can’t simply meander into an animal shelter to claim a dog you’re determined to name Peanut (when you know going in all they’ve got is English Mastiffs, Great Danes, and St. Bernards), you can’t simply bestow on a character a moniker that doesn’t fit him. After all, who would read a story—let alone seven of ’em—about a magical kid named Icarus McDweeb with a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead?

Motivation: What Makes Him Tick?

When building a character, you not only need to know who that character is, but why he does what he does. If he’ll drive 40 minutes out of his way to avoid a particular stretch of road, chances are it’s not because he enjoys detours. There’s got to be some reason behind it—logical or otherwise. Maybe along that bit of highway is the bridge from which his childhood best friend leapt to his death years earlier, and he’s still riddled with guilt over it.

Maybe she obsessively hoards miniature rubber ducks… because when she was six, the bully down the street swiped (and mutilated) hers while her big brother stood by, laughing, refusing to intervene. She’ll be in therapy for years, but that’s another story. The point is, there’s a why behind every what.

Perhaps she only writes with blue pens. Could be there’s a deep-seated psychological reason dating back to her childhood… or we might be reading too much into it and maybe she just likes the way blue ink looks against the crisp white pages of her notebook. As you get to know your character, you’ll find these things out.

What drives your character? Is it hatred of another character? Fear? Love? Desire to please their impossible-to-satisfy parents? Hunger? To reach your character’s heart, you have to know this… and more.

Fears… or What Makes Him Hide Under the Bed, Whimpering Like a Puppy?

Every character needs one looming thing that terrifies him. People are afraid of all sorts of stuff; and fictional ones are no different from real folks in that regard. Let me say that again: People are afraid of all sorts of stuff. Spiders. Mountain lions. Snakes. Water. Heights. Falling. Failure. Success. Cheese.

Find out what petrifies your character—and then, just to be horrible, confront him with it (purely in the name of research of course! What kind of monster do you think I am?!). You could take a stroll through some of these fears to determine whether one resonates with your character.

Next week we’ll take an in-depth look at characterization, to help you craft realistic—and likeable—characters.

Bonus links:

Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.

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