Writing 3D Characters

It’s tough to breathe life into a character, isn’t it? I often sit down with what I think is going to be basically THE BEST IDEA OF ALL THE IDEAS OF EVER – but it very quickly becomes a super flat, boring predictable mess, which discourages me from pursuing it any further, and which results in my always having like four things half-written at the same time that I’m too destroyed to finish.

Recently, though, I have been revising my approach to characters, or ‘characs’. For a long time, I was under the impression that good character writing was all about volume. “I have 12 pages of externally based facts about this charac,” I would say. “This charac likes ham. She wanted to be a marine biologist, but quit because it was too hard. She works at Dollarama. She went as a spider for halloween.” Fun fact: knowing things like someone’s favorite Jay-Z song does not help you much when you are trying to create compelling plot points.

Here are three things I’ve found that help me make characs that I’m happier with, and that I find it much easier to plot arcs for.

Let’s start with two characters, who, at first, will be 2D. 

The first will be our protagonist, Hero Jones. He is a fireman who saves kittens from trees.

The second, our antagonist. Let’s call him Dr. Kittens. He’s an evil scientist who wants to capture all the kittens in the world and send them to outer space.

Now, let’s add some depth.

1) Human beings are not their behaviours.

It can be an unpopular sentiment, but I have long carried the thesis that all people are fundamentally good. Yes, many of us build up thick shells of aggressiveness, bitterness, cruelty, or worse, from life experiences – but people pretty universally want to be liked. How they go about achieving that is what determines their actions.

Let’s look at Hero Jones and Dr. Kittens. Our 2D assumption is that Hero is heroic, and Dr. Kittens is a creep. But let’s go further, and assume that neither person is their behaviour.

Maybe Hero Jones is a beloved firefighter because he secretly burned down his house as a teenager, playing with matches, killing his beloved cat, Tabby. He believes this secret makes him fundamentally unlovable, and in an effort to overcome that, he has chosen to behave heroically. But deep down, Hero thinks that he’s a terrible person. Now every task Hero undertakes, and every person he meets, will cause him internal conflict – he must hide his secret, and his shame around being unlovable.

Maybe Dr. Kittens’ evil behaviours are a result of his own life traumas. Maybe he was always a shy and nerdy boy who wanted friends, but wound up taking solace in his pet cat. Maybe his dream is actually to round up all the cats and send them to space so that he can eventually join them, and they can live together happily, never fearing the cruelty of people again. Which brings me to my next point:

2) People are really predictable.

Any psychology text will tell you that people make decisions for one of two reasons: to avoid pain, or to experience pleasure. Dr. Kittens wants to flee to space with all the cats in the world so he can avoid ever feeling the pain of alienation ever again. Hero Jones believes that if he saves enough kittens from enough fires, he will eventually be able to escape the pain of his deep, dark secret.

Or, here’s a more real world example: if you met me on the street, you would likely say, “She seemed like a pretty nice, normal lady, who probably has little trouble socializing, maintaining a job, or operating in the world.” This would be inaccurate – I actually have a Woody Allen-esque level of anxiety about everything from social situations to climate change – and many of the decisions I make on a day-to-day basis are to minimize the pain of that anxiety.

Yes, even in real life, we repeat this behaviour again and again, fleeing what might hurt us, and pursuing what might please us. How we (or our characters) choose to do these two things is where the magic happens.

Which leads to my third point:

3) A person’s outside is not the same as what is on their inside.

This is actually just good life advice, too. We make a lot of assumptions about what motivates other people. We assume that somebody who cuts us off in traffic is a jerk. We assume that somebody who drives a nice car has a lot of money. We assume that someone who behaves confidently is confident. There’s a lot of conflict to be mined from understanding that no matter how a person looks on the outside, there is going to be something in their life that is a trigger, or a point a shame for them.

What happens if in the closing scene of our film, Hero Jones has no choice but to burn down Dr. Kittens’ secret hideaway, with a bunch of kittens in it?

We don’t like Dr. Kittens’ behaviour, but hey, we’ve all felt the sting of social rejection, so we UNDERSTAND his desire to escape his pain by heading to space with all the kittens. And Hero Jones must once again do something that forces him to face and overcome a huge emotional trigger in order to save us from an LOL-cat free universe. But can he get past his shame, self-loathing and fear that he is ultimately unlovable to save the kittens? Obviously, these are some pretty over the top examples, but using this strategy can create amazing depth on screen.

These types of internal conflict have been used memorably in tons of great films and TV shows; a few great recent examples (off the top of my head) include AMC’s Breaking Bad, HBO’s Silicon Valley, and Toronto Director Matt Johnson’s The Dirties. These all take characters that could very easily become tropes (a nice guy turned drug dealer, a nerd with a heart of gold, and a bullied high school kid) and craft characters that are not only three dimensional, but also give us real insight into how actual people think, and act – and isn’t that the whole point of storytelling?