How To Write Three-Dimensional Characters — Advice from Steven James

I was fortunate to attend the Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc. conference this past weekend.  The keynote speaker was Steven James, author of more than thirty books. He was a funny and engaging keynote speaker, who talked about rejection letters writers receive and the need to write and re-write until your work is the best it can be.

But the greatest value that Steven brought to the OWFI conference was his presentation on writing three-dimensional characters. The key to writing life-like characters, according to Steven, is to show their status vis-à-vis other characters through their actions and dialogue in every scene you write.

Each character has a hierarchical status with every other character in the scene. Status can be relational (parent/child, husband/wife, etc.), positional (boss/subordinate, queen/subject, etc.), or situational (who’s got the gun?). Your protagonist will behave differently depending on whether he has greater status or less in each situation.

To be a three-dimensional character, your protagonist should have different statuses with different characters. Obviously, if your protagonist is a hero, he should have high status in most situations. But no one has the upper hand in every relationship. So give your hero some relationship in which he stumbles – a child or girlfriend or boss whom he never can please.

Maybe this discussion made sense to me because of all the management and diversity programs I’ve attended, where we talked about how different people behave in different situations — the roles that race, gender, age, and culture play in the workplace and in society in general. Maybe it was because I’ve deliberately assumed a lower status role on occasion so people would underestimate my capabilities or ignore what I was doing.

But whatever the reason Steven James’s presentation appealed to me so much, I will analyze the characters in my novels differently now. I’m about to launch into a serious re-write of one novel, so this new perspective will come in handy.

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