Three-Dimensional Characters, Oh, My!


I want you to think of characters as the people who live in your stories. I would argue that they are the most important element of literary erotica. As a reader, you can most likely list characters from books you have read that you loved/hated, grew attached to and were sorry died or happy that they got their dreams fulfilled. Think of these memorable characters (and also of the flat characters that detracted from what could have been a good book) and what elements made them great (or bad) characters. As an author, you strive to create real characters to populate your plot or to reveal stories to you. As we write, there are many items we joggle as we craft our story. Starting with well developed, three dimensional characters will increase the strengths of your prose and decrease the items you are joggling.

In real life, it is impossible to know everyone you come into contact with on an intensely personal level. By necessity and choice, there are degrees of intimacy. For example, I know my neighbors enough to say hello, but know almost nothing about their actual lives. I know a mismatched set of facts about the woman who sells me tea each morning. However, I now extremely intimate details about my friends’ lives. These include stories from their childhoods, as well as an understanding of their fears and dreams. I also have first hand experiences with their quirks and idiosyncrasies. what’s more, the depth of my knowledge varies by the degree of intimacy I have with each friend. I know more about my friend of 8 years than I do about my friend of 6 months.

We use these details to paint pictures of who the folks in our lives are. The more we learn about a person, the more vivid and detailed the painting becomes. Likewise, as we piece together details about their past, their motivation and personal drivers allow us to develop a more in depth understanding of the individuals in our lives and why they have made certain choices. This knowledge may change our perspective of the individual.

Much like in real life, your stories will contain characters with different levels of intimacy to the reader. Regardless of whether you are writing a romance, mystery or some other type of erotic tale, characters populate the world you create. And three-dimensional characters are critical to well written stories. With that in mind, let’s explore characterization.

Basic Types of Characters
This column will focus on developing 3-D or Primary Characters, but here’s a simple outline of the basic types of characters you will use in most of your stories. Primary Characters are the main actors (the protagonist, antagonist, and primary supporting characters); Secondary Characters are there because someone has to work with, serve coffee daily to, and live near your main character (minor supporting roles); and the Superficial or Stock Characters are the people who populate the world such as the cab driver, bar tender, clients at the dyke bar, movie theater, or gym where the scenes your primary characters are involved in take place.

Superficial or Stock Characters may be briefly described (the dykes at the dance club your main character walks by and may check out as she makes her way to a table) or even interacted with (the middle-aged, soccer-mom who tells your butch main character that this is the ladies’ room), but their primary role is to be the back drop of the story. They merely need to exist (as clubs need patrons) or to perform a single action (take money at the door, serve drinks). They can be flat, 1-D as they are place holders who may simply be described by physical traits to represent a stereotype of a person and to allow the reader to quickly understand a social dynamic as in “the blond haired woman in the light blue running suit who most likely drives a mini-van” or “the female bartender who has purple hair, tattooed arms, and multiple facial piercing” and more than serve their intended purpose.

Secondary Characters should be at least 2-D. They need more then a stereotyped physical description to bring them to life and fulfill their roles in your story. However, they are very minor characters who, perhaps, may be only one step above a stereotyped character so need not be fully developed as they serve a single plot purpose in the story. Almost like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, the Secondary Character exists to reinforce the rudimentary themes of your story.

An example of this might be a coworker who will have a physical description as well as a few life details and a personality trait or two who your main character talks to about some back story your readers need to know. Or perhaps, Sue, the single mom who works the early shift at the diner your main character goes to for breakfast each morning on her way home from the club, is middle aged with brown hair and kind eyes. She has three children, a dead beat ex-husband, and works this shift so she can be home with the kids when they get out of school. She quotes Shakespeare and always sees the silver lining in a bad situation. Her role, besides serving your main character breakfast, is to remind your main character that no matter how bad her current situation is; there is hope.

Primary Characters, including your main character, must be 3-D and require full development both physically and emotionally if your reader is expected to connect or care about them. They demand a complex existence with details that capture the scars and experiences of a full life. Weaknesses, strengths, vulnerability, a life-view, fears, and dreams all make up these complex characters and must be related to the reader. For, no matter what your story is about, it is first and foremost about people.

Summary of Dimensions of a Character
1-D: a basic physical description or single fact designed to evoke a stereotype or symbolic response from your reader. Example: an attractive young man who is afraid of bats

2-D: a physical description with a brief personality sketch or small collection of facts, perhaps a quirk or two who serves a single function in the story. Example: an attractive young man who is afraid of bats, because he fell into a well when he was a child and bats swarmed around them as he waited for help.

3-D: a complex description with layers of emotion and history from which the reader learns intimate, in depth details including personal drivers and motivation, and who experiences growth or an affirmation of beliefs or values held. Example: an attractive young man who is afraid of bats, because he fell into a well when he was a child and bats swarmed around them as he waited for help. As an adult, he transforms his fear of bats into a symbolic representation of power that he uses to strike fear into the evil doers he fights.

Building 3-D Characters
A Primary Character must have a past, present, and (hopefully) future. The present is the story proper, the now in which the character exists in your story. This is obvious in a present tense story, but is also true in a past tense story. In a past tense story, especially if the narrator is the main character, there is an opportunity for the narrator to impart information a narrator in a present tense story would not have access to since the tale is unfolding in the present. However, even in a past tense story the present is the story that is being told. The past is everything that has occurred before the story is taking place. Some of the character’s past may be incorporated into the story in the form of flashbacks and back story. The future is what will happen after the story is over either in a sequel (that will then become the present) or in the readers mind in the send off you hint at or state in the close of the story (“…and they lived happily ever after” or “…they were destine to crash and burn”).

Some Basic Character Construction Tips.
When you construct your characters, there are a number of things to consider that affect who your character is and how they will react to the events in your story. Class, education level, race, gender identity, physical location of their origins, job, age, defining moments in their lives, their perspective on the world, religious beliefs, ideology of their relationship to others, dreams, hopes, motivation, goals, quirks, flaws, hang ups, fears, OCDs — all the stuff that makes any given person an individual’should be part of your character’s construction and should affect everything they say and do.

For the purpose of this section, I will use Jess, the butch main character from my short erotic story “The Coal Miner’s Other Daughter” in Rode Hard and Put Away Wet (Suspect Thoughts Press, 2005).

Who is she? This question can seem overwhelming and trivial at the same time. It essentially is asking for parameters in which to slot Jess. All of those identity boxes — race, age, gender, class, etc. — that define us socially and more importantly, those things that are not boxes and are more organic and individual. For example, Jess is white, 18, butch-female, and working-class poor. She is also loyal, not easily influenced by peer pressure, an outsider, and a bit of a romantic. The second set of descriptors is not necessarily derived from the first set. That is, Jess could be 18 and working-class poor, etc. and very affected by peer pressure, for example. So, who is your character? What boxes is she in? How does she not fit into those boxes? And what individual traits does she have?

What roles does she play in her life? (daughter, outsider, butch, teenager, friend, lover) How would she act in any given situation? And why? Jess’ actions are directly connected to who she is the moral fabric that makes up her world view that is directly affected by the physical facts of her life. That is a white, working-class poor, 1950s butch from a mining town in West Virginia. Who she is, is also affect by the facts that she (1) had parents who accepted her as she is, (2) an aunt who championed her cause, and (3) intangible qualities of Jess as an individual. Removing any of these items could affect who Jess is.

How does she talk? How does she feel about the world? What is her motivation, driving force? What would she die for? What topics is she likely to talk about? What topics are taboo or uncomfortable for her to talk about? What analogies would she draw? How verbal is she? Is she likely to express emotion verbally with ease or to hold it in? All of these questions can be answered based on who Jess is and how her life experiences, upbringing, and world view have left their imprint on her.

Your characters should have their own voices and should not sound the same as each other. A reader, once familiar with your characters, should be able to tell who is speaking without the dialogue tags. Good dialogue demonstrates character more precisely than any amount of exposition can. (See March’s column: “What can I say?: Dialogue in Lesbian Erotica” for more details on writing dialogue.)

Likewise, constructing a physical description of your character is important. You may not and need not include all the details of that description into the story, but a detailed physical description of your character should exist in your character sketch. The jury is still out on the correct amount of physical details you should provide the reader about a character. Some authors paint vivid physical sketches that would allow all readers to identify the character from a photo while others provide brief sketches allowing the reader to fill in the details and create the physical description they choose.

Either method is acceptable and has its drawbacks and strengths. Providing a detailed description allows you to control the physical image of the character in the reader’s mind ensuring they see the character as you do, but this prevents them from using their imagination to construct the character in a way that might be more appealing to them inside a brief framework that you provide.

A brief description would include perhaps: race, age, hair color, basic body type details from which the reader can draw a character. For example, envision a thin, 5’4″, uncurvy, Asian woman with short red hair who is 25. To make this description more vivid, we add specific details about her physical description. For example, her heart shaped lips, almond shaped eyes, a small protruding belly, strong arm muscles, small forehead with bangs, etc.. The more details you add the clearer the image will be, however, a brief description can serves you just as well. I personally prefer a more vivid description.

Avoid Stereotypes and Ultimates. We are all familiar with stereotyped main characters-characters that represent or fulfill beliefs held by the dominate culture such as the silent butch with the simple moral standards, the chatty femme with the heart of gold, the effeminate gay man swishing about, etc.. The evils of these characters attempting to serve as main characters have been well documented. Just don’t do it!

Ultimates are characters who embody one moral standard or its anti-standard — the whore, virgin/Madonna, mass murderer, savior, etc,. No one is purely evil or purely good. People are more complex then that and the moral system as a whole is filled with many more shades of gray then with hues of black and white. That is to say, even the most gruesome murderer is loved by someone for some redeeming factor and even Saints have flaws. Complex, often contradictory, elements make up individuals and should makeup your characters.

Motivation and Perception. The greatest lessons I have learned about moral grayness in regards to character construction have come from comic books. There are tons of erotic comic books, but I recommend X-men as the finest source of examples of strong, 3-D characters that are neither stereotypes nor ultimates. Even the “bad guys” (Magneto and his folk) are, after all, only attempting to protect themselves from humanities’ phobia of mutants. Is that actually evil? Is demanding through any means necessary that society treat them fairly evil? Likewise, are the X-men really good because they strive to “win over” a mutant-phobic society through virtues that that society approves of? It is, after all, a matter of perspective and a character’s motivation may affect how her actions are interpreted. Showing motivation is essential in presenting 3-D characters and avoiding stereotyped characters.

A Few Tools
Character Building Sheet. Different versions of these can be found on-line or in many writing books. They consist of a list of superficial questions, much like a dating club form, for you to answer about the character. Name, place of birth, favorite color, eye color, hobbies, etc. The better ones contain more probing questions such as first sexual experience, most traumatic event, dreams, hopes, long term goals, etc.

Creating a character sheet for each primary character allows you to know the character as a whole, “real” person instead as a collection of unrelated traits and facts. You won’t include all of the information and details in to your story, but constructing a full person will allow you to make the characters 3-D to the readers and will open up events (physical and emotional) in your story that perhaps would not develop in as much complexity without a full understanding of your character.

Timeline. In this role, a timeline is not a plot construction device, but is instead a character building tool much like a character construction sheet. Starting from just before the birth of your character, plot on the timeline all of the life events, traumas, successes, etc. for a character up to the start of the story. You may also list outside information that may be helpful, for example historical events that were going on at the same time as your character was in college that may have impacted her development or affect her perspective. Again, a timeline like a character sheet will give you insight into who your character really is in a much more complex way then constructing her in your mind as you write.

Now What
So, what do you do with all of this information you’ve compiled on your character? Use the character sketch to monitor the character’s behavior within the context of your story, add details and insight into the character, and make the character feel real, that is believable to readers. If you are writing a character-driven story, your character sketch will help the tale unfold and will generate ideas for where it is going.

Character’s growth occurs through conflict. What is a reasonable change or reaffirmation of characters beliefs or values based on the events in your story? How do character traits affect your story’s plot, dialogue, and ultimate outcome?

Just like all of the character traits you assign to a character affect their dialogue, they also affect other aspects of your character. Consider: you are writing about two characters who are both lesbians and were raised in middle-class, suburban, two-parent households in Connecticut. They are both 25 and attended major universities graduating top in their classes. While these two characters may appear to have a lot in common, they may actually be wildly different even though the traits I’ve listed are identical. Perhaps, for example one of them was raped, had homophobic parents, or ___________(fill in the blank). The experiences of a life affect a character’s beliefs and actions.

Likewise, by changing one other detail about one character (age, class, race, educational level, places of birth, religion, etc.) you change not only the facts of the character’s life, but their reaction to events and interactions as well as potentially changing their world view and ideology. For example, by making one of them African American and the other white, you increase the possibilities of differences between the characters. How are their experiences of homophobia different? How will they react to the suggestion of a three way? How does their world view differ? The elements that make up who your character is should determine every action/reaction they have. By focusing on the events and their impact on the character’s world view, you will achieve a greater degree of success in creating 3-D characters.

Consider these questions in relation to your character:
Based on the construction of your character, who is she really from a nonjudgmental perspective? We all have a view of who we are. This view isn’t always held by those around us. With that in mind: How does your character view herself? How do other characters view her? How will/should the reader view her?

Showing Character in Your Prose

Tell the reader or have the character tell the reader. In a third person story, you can tell the reader:

Sue is untrustworthy and a cheat. She has cheated on three women before Emily. or, in a first person story you can have the character tell the reader:

“I’ve cheated on three women what made me think I could be faithful to Emily.”

This is the least memorable way to impart this information to the reader. Additionally, the reader may not believe the character or narrator if she is unreliable.

Have other characters tell the reader. This is most easily accomplished by having two characters talk about the character in question. This allows the reader to evaluate the information and draw their own conclusion:

“Sue cheated on me, Sharon and Dawn.” Beth said.
“I cannot believe it, she cheated on me too,” Said Emily.

Assuming the characters providing the information are reliable, the reader will determine that Sue is untrustworthy and a cheat.

Use the character’s actions: The best and most concise way to show character is through action. If we know Sue is dating Emily and see her making out in the bathroom with Janet, we don’t need to be told anything; we will deduce she is a cheat by her actions. After all, actions do speak louder then words and show, don’t tell. Character traits linked to motivation and emotions can be shown through physical body language such as twitching, sweating, facial expressions, fidgeting, etc.

If there is an issue you would like me to address in Two Girls Kissing, please email me, Amie M. Evans, with the column title as the subject line. To be added to my confidential monthly email list, please email me with subscribe as the subject line.

Amie M. Evans

“Two Girls Kissing: Writing Lesbian Literary Erotica” © 2006 Amie M. Evans. All rights reserved.

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