When you create characters, you create a life where life didn’t exist before. But the way you create those characters will render them flat and non-memorable or multi-dimensional and complex so that readers will remember them. Multi-dimensional characters fuel the heart of every story. The characters (who) together with the plot (what) and the setting (where) are the basic elements that must work together to create a compelling story. It is sporadic that a story can exist without one of these elements. And even if the setting is fuzzy and the plot is missing (like in a vignette), it is virtually impossible to have a story without characters.
What is a Multi-Dimensional Character?
It’s obviously not enough to just throw in some characters to have a good, memorable story. You need the right number of characters, and all of them need to be built from the ground up in such a way so they feel real and believable. The reader must perceive those characters as actual people because that’s the way readers connect with them. The reader must be able to put himself into the shoes of a character and get a sense of realism and plausibility and feel entertained and emotionally connected.
You’ve probably heard this before: create 3-dimensional or multi-dimensional characters, and avoid flat or cardboard characters. What does that mean?
This advice spawns from the fact that nobody in our real world is a one-dimensional individual. Nobody is just bad or just good, or just stupid or just smart. People are generally bad about some things and good about others; they are stupid about certain things and smart about others. They have positive and negative traits, and all of them together make that person who they are.
Moreover, a person evolves and changes over time. A person is influenced by their environment, family, teachers, and friends. Someone who started as being a cynic might change later on when a stressful event occurs. Someone who was a loving person might turn into a misanthrope after losing their loved one to an accident; a god-fearing person might turn into a god-hater after losing their child to disease. Either way, people change—in good or in bad—and that makes them real, too.
The combination of personal traits and how those traits evolve during one’s life defines that person in multiple dimensions. It’s what makes that person unique. In the context of fiction, it’s what makes that character interesting and worth caring about.
So, to create powerful, memorable characters, you must answer 3 fundamental questions:
1) Who is this character?
2) What does this character want?
3) How does this character change?
Who Is This Character?
In this article, I am not worried about the way a character looks, i.e., their physical appearance, even though, in some instances, the way a character looks is integral to their personality. I am mostly talking about personality traits. Other things such as the characters’ names and looks are just bonuses that, when used correctly, will propel your character further. Just imagine Darth Vader being exactly as he is, but instead of the ominous black suit, he’d be wearing a yellow overall, and his name would be Skippy.
I know it’s an exaggeration, but I wanted to make a point. After reading the information below and applying everything you have learned about personality, give your characters some physical features and a matching name. Then, you’ll have a real winner!
Let’s go back to personality now. To define a full character, we will turn to something called the Myers-Briggs test. And yes, I know, there are many reasons you should not use the Myers-Briggs test for yourself or other people in your life. But when it comes to creating characters, it’s quite a handy tool.
Also, don’t get scared: you won’t have to become a psychologist to create powerful characters. I will give you an easy, child-proof way to reverse-engineer the Myers-Briggs test. I will only touch on the basic points here, but you should check the Myers & Briggs Foundation site for some in-depth information if you want to learn more.
Basically, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a way to take the 16 dimensions defined in the theory of psychological types described by Carl Jung and apply them to people. Each person will be defined by a combination of 4 factors, each factor having one dominant feature and one minor:
a) Favorite World: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world (Extraversion (E)) or the inner world (Introversion (I))?
b) Information: Do you prefer to focus on the raw, basic information you have (Sensing (S)) or to interpret and add meaning to it (Intuition (N))?
c) Decisions: Do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency (Thinking (T)) or first look at circumstances and their influence on people (Feeling (F))?
d) Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided (Judging (J)) or to stay open to new information and options (Perceiving (P))?
Providing Depth To Your Characters
The one critical thing to remember is that neither one of us is only one thing or another. We all have things we are extroverted about (like cursing out loud at a soccer game) and things we are introverted about (like asking a favor from a stranger). So, by asking different questions that target different aspects of life, we get an insight into that character’s deepest thoughts. Therefore, the test is conducted through a series of questions, and depending on the answers, you get allocated a letter of each of the above traits.
So, for example, INFP = Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving.
Obviously, you have 4 x 4 dimensions, which results in 16 possible combinations.
If you want to try it out and learn about your own personality and thus learn a little bit more about this, here is a link to one of these tests: Human Metrics.
So, now let’s build the personality code for a character:
- a) Favorite World:
- a. Extroverted: (Keyword: OUTER)
- i. Acts first, thinks later (trigger-happy)
- ii. Feels deprived when cut off from the outside world (hates isolation)
- iii. Open and motivated by the outside world (feels great in crowds)
- iv. Enjoys a wide variety of people and the way people change
- b. Introverted: (Keyword: INNER)
- i. Thinks first, acts later (over-thinker)
- ii. Needs private time to recharge (loner)
- iii. Motivated internally (others find it hard to read him or “break thru”)
- iv. Prefers one-to-one communications (hates crowds)
- a. Extroverted: (Keyword: OUTER)
Think about your character; which one of these are they leaning towards? If you like numbers, use percentages (for example, 70% extroverted, 30% introverted), otherwise just say (E) first, (I) second, to signify that this character is more extroverted than they are introverted.
Let’s keep going. Use the same method for the other 3 parameters:
- b) Information:
- a. Sensing: (Keywords: PRESENT, REALITY)
- i. Mentally lives in the now (carpe diem)
- ii. Uses common sense and easily creates practical solutions (practical)
- iii. Good memory of details of past facts and events (facts!)
- iv. Improvises well from experience (street smart)
- v. Likes clear and concrete information (hates guessing)
- b. Intuitive (Keywords: FUTURE, POSSIBILITIES)
- i. Mentally lives in the future (opportunities)
- ii. Uses imagination and creates/invents new possibilities (theoretical)
- iii. Good memory of patterns, contexts, and connections (feelings!)
- iv. Improvises well from theoretical understanding (book smart)
- a. Sensing: (Keywords: PRESENT, REALITY)
- c) Decisions:
- a. Thinking: (Keyword: DETACHED)
- i. Searches for facts and logic in a decision situation
- ii. Looks at work as a task-based process, independent of people
- iii. Can provide an objective and critical analysis
- iv. Accepts conflict as a normal part of life
- b. Feeling: (Keyword: ATTACHED)
- i. Uses feelings and impact on people in a decision situation
- ii. Sensitive to people’s needs and reactions
- iii. Seeks consensus and popular opinions
- iv. Unsettled by conflict; dislikes disharmony
- a. Thinking: (Keyword: DETACHED)
- d) Structure:
- a. Judging: (Keyword: HAS A PLAN)
- i. Plans many details before taking action
- ii. Focuses on task-related actions, completes segments in order
- iii. Works best when can stay ahead of deadlines
- iv. Uses goals, targets, dates to manage life and work
- b. Perceiving (Keyword: AS IT COMES)
- i. Plans on-the-go
- ii. Likes to multitask and mix work with play
- iii. Tolerant of time pressure, works best close to deadlines
- iv. Avoids commitments that interfere with flexibility, freedom, and variety
- a. Judging: (Keyword: HAS A PLAN)
Okay, so by now you should have two columns: one with the dominant characteristics, and one with the minor ones. For example:
Dominant: ENTJ (Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging)
Minor: ISFP (Introvert, Sensing, Feeling, Perceiving)
Interpreting The Results
What you should do next is read the description of those two types. Your character will be a lot of the first (dominant) and a little of the second (minor), which is why you want to read both.
You can read these descriptions on the Myers-Briggs Site or the PersonlityPage. I like the PersonalityPage, particularly because they have a short description and a long, more detailed description for those who want to go deeper. Also, they name each type with a matching label. In our example above:
ENTJ = The Executive – Assertive and outspoken – they are driven to lead. Excellent ability to understand difficult organizational problems and create solid solutions. Intelligent and well-informed, they usually excel in public speaking. They value knowledge and competence and usually have little patience with inefficiency or disorganization.
ISFP = The Artist – Quiet, serious, sensitive, and kind. They do not like conflict and are not likely to do things that may generate conflict. Loyal and faithful. Extremely well-developed senses and aesthetic appreciation for beauty. Not interested in leading or controlling others. Flexible and open-minded. Likely to be original and creative. Enjoy the present moment.
Here is a quick chart that gives you an idea about each of the 16 types.
The Duty Fulfiller
A little note here: Each of these types can be additionally decomposed to provide a deeper understanding. For example, a person who is an ENTP (The Visionary) can be described as follows:
You probably don’t need to go that deep, but if you do, the PersonalityPage mentioned above can give you all of these breakdowns. Their detailed descriptions are excellent. After you found your character’s personality, read the description, and ask yourself: Does this sound like the character I had envisioned?
The Character’s Traits
Now that you have your character described, the goal becomes revealing those traits to the readers through the character’s actions or dialogue. The reader probably doesn’t know the personality code, but we are all more or less versed in naturally reading these types. Read the Executive’s description above; take all those features and figure out how to show them in your prose. “They value knowledge and competence”—show the character praising this and show them display hatred of the opposite.
Make sure you choose at least one or two of the minor type traits and show that sporadically in your story. Maybe your executive is also loyal and faithful. He’s portrayed as this mean boss-type person, but he’s a loving husband and father at home. Give your characters 75% of their main type (which already is a combination of 4 different dimensions) and 25% of the minor type. You will wind up with an actual person, someone who is real, and someone with whom the readers can connect.
Obviously, you will use actions, body language, and dialogue to load your character with the above traits. There’s something called “visual identification,” a method by which you observe a person and figure out their type from their body language, speech mannerism, and so on. Since you know your type now, you need to figure those body language cues and manners of speech that would indicate that. You are in luck because psychologists have been dealing with this for years. The 16 types site has some descriptions related to visual identification. Use those cues to bring your character to life.
To do some of this on your own, use a simple Q&A method. If this person “plans on the go,” what does that mean? Brainstorm: he doesn’t have a calendar planner, he’s late, he improvises, etc. Take all the bullet points from above and figure out what your character needs to do, say, and how they should act to ooze that particular trait.
Create a Character With Flaws
Besides the personality traits, to make characters even more human, you should give them flaws and redeeming features. Your protagonist is the hero, he saves everyone, but he also has their own demons. Your great villain or antagonist is mean and bad, but he also has characteristics that make us like them. Everyone agrees Darth Vader is evil, but the fact that he can’t kill his own son and turns against his master at the climax makes him real. Indiana Jones saves everyone every time and does so selflessly, putting his life on the line. But he’s afraid of snakes. Sherlock Holmes is a great detective, putting criminals behind bars, but he’s a drug addict, and his ego makes him behave rather mean towards people he considers of lower intellect. See the pattern? Give a lot, take some away.
Readers also love unexpected acts of kindness, especially during stressful times or from characters who don’t seem like they would be inclined to act that way. Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive movie risks blowing his cover while on the run, only to help read a patient’s chart.
Just be aware of one thing: don’t tack good traits on a villain or flaws on a hero just for the sake of it. It will feel forced. Make sure that those traits flow naturally and actually integrate with the plot. We all hate Voldemort, but we do feel a bit of sympathy for the guy, given the life he had. That’s much better than showing that he loves dogs.
All these things make the character more human. All these little facets give your characters depth and make them easier to understand and believe.
And remember that I use ‘flaws’ not just with a negative connotation, but merely an opposite trait. So, if your character is a villain, a positive trait would be a flaw.
What does the character want?
Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
Stories need conflict, and conflict arises when a character wants something, and he cannot get it. So, make sure that you make this clear from the beginning.
During a complete story, characters will want:
1) To solve the story’s main question (what is the one thing the character wants directly related to this plot?)
2) To fulfill their life-long desires — these are things that exist with or without this story; they are inherent to the character. The story could be about something, but your character might ALSO want to get a better life, or find a wife, or kill an enemy. There are things all of us want, and we continue to want them throughout our life. The story might not be about those, but they add to the character’s dimension, making them have a life outside of the story, thus more realistic. Those things should be mentioned and hinted at subtly.
Once you establish what the characters want, make sure that it’s tough for them to get it. Nothing bothers readers as much as a well-defined character that dashes through the story and succeeds at every step. That’s because, in reality, life is not like that, and we all know it. And in the end, we actually despise people that have it easy in life. In reality, for most people, very few things can be obtained without a struggle. (Have you ever thought kindly about the kid who inherited a fortune and is now flashing it everywhere? Of course not, even if he saves a squirrel.)
Since I quoted Vonnegut, let me continue with his advice here: “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—so that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Now we’re talking. You have defined a real, multi-dimensional character, you gave them something to desire, and then you’ve made it hellishly hard for them to get it. We’re on the right path!
How does the character change?
I think that deep inside, people don’t believe that they change. The reality is, we all change, but often we fail to notice those changes. For instance, I have to struggle to remember what my values and thoughts were in my twenties. I am sure they were vastly different from my values and beliefs of today. The reason we fail to notice those changes is because they happen slowly and subtly over time.
Sometimes the ones around us notice how we change, especially those we haven’t seen for a long time. We are aware that people change, but we see it in others more than we see it in ourselves. That’s why we are also very much aware when a character changes in front of our eyes.
A story is a slice of life; to create memorable characters, you need them to change throughout the story.
Now, don’t get me wrong, not all characters must change. Allow me a parenthesis to explain. There are 4 types of stories in general: Milieu (it’s a story about a place), Idea (it’s a story about information), Character (it’s a story about a character’s evolution), and Event (it’s a story about something that happened). Each story has a little bit of each of these types. For this section, we are mostly referring to the character-heavy stories. Those are the stories where we follow the character arc, and we can clearly see a beginning character, a path of change, and an ending character.
The Indiana Jones movies are Event stories. The emphasis is not on the character’s evolution, so Indiana Jones is pretty much the same from beginning to end.
A Christmas Carol is a character story, and here we see Ebenezer Scrooge’s evolution from a cold, miserly person to a selfless person who cares.
There are a few ways that you can modify a character in your story:
- Change – your character turns from a regular person into a hero (Frodo)
- Growth – your character becomes a better person (Scrooge)
- Demise – your character becomes a worse person (Michael Corleone)
When it comes to the character arc, this is also not a one-way street. A person might find themselves on a growth path for twenty years, then something happens, and the rest of life is a downward spiral. That in itself could be an interesting story to tell.
James Scott Bell wrote in his Plot and Structure, “As opposed to the plotline, the character arc is a description of what happens to the inside of the character over the course of the story.” He goes on and provides us with a simple list to follow this arc:
- “A beginning point, where we meet the character and get a sense of his interior layers.
- A doorway through which the character must pass, almost always reluctantly.
- Incidents that impact the layers.
- A deepening disturbance.
- A moment of change, sometimes via an “epiphany.”
When you work on your characters’ arc, try to follow this simple forward-looking list. Your arc should span the entire novel (or even more, an entire series) and should be clear enough to understand it.
Create a Character With Alignment
By playing with the character arc, in the context of their personality, you can create powerful and memorable characters. One critical keyword I want to mention here is “alignment.” Make sure that the change is possible for the personality type. A very introverted, heads-in-the-clouds artist is unlikely to change so radically as to become the president of Google (unless you are writing comedy, in which case all bets are off). So, make sure that your character evolution is aligned to the character’s personality to sound plausible. That’s why you define the personality in the first step by walking your way backward, learning more about your character as you develop them.
If you defined your character’s personality well enough, gave them something to desire, made it very hard for them to get it, and established a path by which they change, you probably have a powerful character, one that readers can relate to and who will stay in their minds long after they’ve finished your book.
In your novel, you should go through this exercise for your protagonist(s), the antagonist(s), and, perhaps on a smaller scale, for your sidekicks. If you populate your story with these well-defined characters, you are already one step ahead toward a memorable novel. Of course, these great characters must do something exciting and interesting, but that’s a whole other story for another time.
Last but not least, I’ve created a character development worksheet you can download right away and start shaping up your characters.
Some additional reading materials:
- Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
- Profiles of the Sixteen Personality Types
- Personality Test
- Alternative Personality Test
- 15 Days to Stronger Character
- Strong Characters versus Weak Characters
- How Do You Build A Strong Character In Your Writing?
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- How do you approach your character development?
- What are the most critical elements of a great character?
- How do you deal with characters that feel flat?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!
This is really, really helpful – I’m writing something large at the moment, with lots of characters, and maintaining a level of authenticity and agency in each of them is a challenge. Articles like this just help to focus the mind, so thank you. Also, what you say about the complexity of real people, how they can be ‘good’ in some situations and ‘bad’ in others, reminds me of a brilliant line of criticism from D H Lawrence – that while people are changeable, their nature is not – let’s say a person’s nature is ‘carbon’ – that still means that they can be a diamond, or a dull rock. But their nature is still the same. This concept taught me a lot.
Glad I could help and good luck with your project!
Really enjoyed this post, the idea of adding psychological depth to characters by using the Myers-Briggs personality test. Look forward to using this to make my characters more realistic. Thank you.