How To Craft a Compelling Character

Last week, Sisters in Crime approached me to do a SINC-UP! video tip for their YouTube channel. Volunteers from the national education committee post video writing tips several times a month to provide inspiration for new writers and promote the value of Sisters in Crime membership. All the videos are only 2-5 minutes long and easily digestible.

I chose characterization. After we taped the video, the volunteer told me she finally understood why beta readers couldn’t connect with her main character. She’s not alone. Many new writers struggle with how to deepen their characters. After all, we can have the best concept, premise, and plot, but if readers can’t connect with our characters then the story won’t work.

How do we craft a compelling character?

It starts with three dimensions. We’re all layered. Who we portray to the world falls under the first dimension of character. That’s not to say we aren’t acting genuine, but when we are in a public setting we act appropriately—or we don’t, but that’s what you’ll have to figure out for your character.

  • Who is your character in public?
  • Do they put their best foot forward?
  • Or are they so uncomfortable in a public setting, they make a total fool of themselves?

Jotting down how your character might react in public places will help you nail down the first dimension.

The second dimension of character is the person we show to family and close friends. At home we let our guard down. We’re more relaxed, more ourselves. We don’t need to try to portray a certain image or level of professionalism because we’re surrounded by close friends and family.

  • How does your character react around close friends and family?
  • Are they goofballs?
  • The practical jokester?
  • More loving, more reserved?

The perfect real-life example of the first two dimensions of character is Richard Simmons. To the world he was a gregarious, loud, sensitive, and passionate workout guru who pranced around in flashy outfits, the more outrageous the better. Everyone loved him. He was so open, so seemingly transparent, even casual viewers of his workout videos felt they knew the real Richard Simmons. He was a shining light of inspiration to many over the years. When he disappeared from public view, the public feared the worst.

  • Did he die?
  • Is someone holding him hostage?
  • Is he being abused?

No one knew. One day he was performing for the camera, and the next day—gone. No explanation, no paparazzi photos, nothing. He vanished.

What very few knew in the decades that followed was that the Richard Simmons he portrayed to the world was who he longed to become. An alter ego, if you will. At home Richard was an extreme introvert, a recluse with only one or two close friends, a quiet, emotionally scarred, deep thinker who preferred the solace of silence—the polar opposite of who he was in public.

Richard Simmons is an extreme example of the first two dimensions of character but keep him in mind while crafting a new character.

The third dimension is our true character. And by that, I mean, if your character is sitting in a crowded theater when a fire breaks out, do they help others find the exit? Or do they trample the crowd to save themselves? One’s true character is tested when they’re put into perilous situations.

  • Who is your character then?
  • Are they the savior or the selfish?
  • Do they think they’re the savior but when trouble ensues, they run in the opposite direction?

Ask your significant other or best friend to describe who you are in public, who you are in private, and how that might differ. Unless you’ve been in a dangerous situation you may not even know your third dimension…until it’s tested. Then you’ll find out quick. 😉

Once you’ve mastered these three dimensions and have gotten to know your characters on a deeper level, then ask them questions like,

  • What’s your greatest passion?
  • What’s your favorite genre of music?
  • Do you travel?
  • What places have you gone?
  • How did each trip affect you?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Are you an animal lover? (I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like animals)
  • Did you have a favorite childhood pet?
  • How did you feel when they died?
  • What type of things are on your bucket list?

The more questions you ask, the better you’ll get to know them.

Apply the same three dimensions to all your characters, even your villain. You need to know the villain as well as your main character. After all, the two characters should be equally matched. Thus, even if everything they stand for rubs against who you are as a person, you’ve gotta fight for them, win their arguments, understand why they do the things they do. Most villains don’t know they’re the bad guy. They’re on a mission to fulfill their goals, and you, as the writer, need to champion their efforts, especially if you plan to write from their point-of-view.

Do you concentrate on the three dimensions of character while crafting characters?

For those who struggle with characterization, did this help connect a few dots?

This entry was posted in #writetip, #writetips, character development and tagged , , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at

22 thoughts on “How To Craft a Compelling Character

  1. Always like reading about how other writers approach characterization, Sue. Your Richard Simmons example reminds me of something I strive to do, and that is to give main characters a secret, something they don’t want others to know about. Makes for actions and attitudes that have readers wondering what’s going on beneath the surface. Why does Rick react so violently when Sam plays “As Time Goes By”? And so on.

    Good brain food this morning, Sue.

  2. Sue, this is wonderful. Very helpful. I love the way you organize personality and behavior for characters.

    We’ve had a mini-course on creating villains, with Debbie’s recent post on the villain’s journey, and now this great way of organizing characterization.

    I wonder, with villains, if there is a fourth dimension – the hidden “Hyde” dimension (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) – deeper than even the third dimension, the delusional deranged place where the villain creates a new world order and where they are in charge.

    Thanks for the great mini-course. Have a wonderful day.

    • Thanks, Steve! The delusion would fall under the second dimension. Remember Buffalo Bill? At home he let his freak flag fly, and it gave us a peek into the monster behind the mask.

  3. This is a very interesting exercise I’m going to do with my current protag/antag. It definitely presents a challenge because I bet most of us like to think we behave and act the same in public and in private.

  4. Good morning, Sue. I love your three dimensions of character. It’s a great approach to “peeling the onion” of a character.

    My approach to crafting characters has been more organic. Starting out much like meeting a stranger, or being introduced to someone by a friend. I might know nothing or something in advance. There’s the initial impression, and then details about who they are with family and who their true character is as I get to know them. Details bubbling up as I get to know more about them. Sometimes, I learn something significant right off the bat, much like having a deep conversation with a stranger I’ve just met. Other times it takes a while.

    Your method here can help with that, giving a framework for what I’ve learned, or even prompting questions and speed writing exercises, and of course, interviews.

    Thanks for posting this! Definitely another tool for the writing tool chest.

    Have a wonderful day!

    • Thanks, Dale. I find it fascinating how each writer approaches crafting characters. There’s no “right” way that works for everyone. With series characters, I learn more and more about them with each book. More organically, as you mentioned.

      Hope you have a wonderful day, too!

  5. Awesome post, Sue. I actually took notes on this one.

    For dimensions 1 and 2, there’s another thing I discovered for characterization. It came about when I asked myself, Why did I believe I was an introvert all my childhood when I’m so clearly an extravert? Answer: Because that’s how the world treated me. Because no one wanted to be friendly, so I was told I was the one not friendly. So an extra question could be: What could happen to your character that they believe their the opposite of who they are around friends and family?

    • In a sense, that character can be a type of unreliable narrator. Unraveling their true nature could be a labyrinthine literary journey. The reader might need an extra dose of save-the-cat moments to stay engaged. And their nature must play a key part in the story, be well integrated into theme and plot.

      And kudos for spelling extravert correctly!

  6. Most villains don’t know they’re the bad guy.

    This post is great, Sue…thanks! And I particularly love the above quote. Makes my brain buzz with possibilities. TBH, I think it’s just as true in real life as it is in fiction.

    I can see that some of my characters are still cardboard cutouts. Time to put some flesh on those bones, I think!

    Happy Monday to all! 🙂

  7. This came at the best time! I’m just fleshing out who my characters are, and I’ve never used the 3-dimension approach. It’s a great way to find out what the lie they believe about themselves and their wound and fears are.

  8. Good points, Sue. A couple of others touched upon something I see as another dimension or perception: how characters perceive themselves, what they perceive as their strengths and flaws.

    • You could definitely see it as a fourth dimension, or uncover their perception in the second dimension. Either way, whatever helps you go deeper is a huge plus. 😊

  9. Great building blocks for characters, Sue. It’s much more important to discover the insides of a character than to describe superficial “driver’s license” info like eye color, height, weight.

    Sometimes my characters make discoveries about themselves they didn’t expect. My series heroine is a closet adrenaline junkie but never realized that until her adult son, an Army sergeant, pointed out to her, “You’re just like me, Mom. You love the rush.”

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