When you attend writing workshops you often hear about the need to create three dimensional characters. Of course you need characters so fresh and full of life that they might step off the page and into your life at any moment. But how do you do that?

Think about a friend. Suppose you were going to write her as a character in a story. The temptation is to describe her – height, weight, colouring, hair style, clothing preference.

Let’s take some imaginary friend. “She was small and plump, with red hair. As usual, she was wearing a trendy top and name-brand blue jeans.”

That’s not bad. It’s better than “She was five foot two and size 16.” It’s not as accurate, but it’s a more immediately vivid picture. It also gives a reflection back to you – to your opinion. You might have said she was wearing a white lacy top. Again, more accurate but less revealing. What ‘trendy’ reveals is your opinion. In your eyes, it is trendy. Now you, the narrator in the first person, are in the picture; the reader hears your voice.

You have a choice here. Do you want to be in the picture or would you rather stand back and be objective? If you want to be in the picture you can go ahead and add “… and as usual the jeans were two sizes too tight.” Some friend you are, adding a comment like that.

But now the relationship between you and your friend is starting to come to life. It’s a bit conflicted. Why? In that moment we step into the story to find out about that conflict.

If you continue with this story, seeing the other person from your own personal viewpoint readers will know that your feelings are colouring the picture. You can damn your friend with faint praise “She was always better than I was in school. What did I care, I was dating the star quarterback.” You now have a clearer picture of both characters and you may be starting to dislike the viewpoint character.

Would you like to make her more sympathetic? “Of course, that was before I got pregnant and had to move to the city and start life as a single mom.”

You are developing both characters at one time, playing one off the other, and while you started with Character B you are developing a picture of Character A. You can switch back at any point.

“We were both in university together. She was getting her master’s degree and I was cleaning tables in the cafeteria. Give her her due, she never ignored me or pretended she didn’t know me.”

You could have been objective and said Character B is steady and studious but a bit vain. Character A had a bad start in life and still has a bit of an attitude.

Bbut isn’t it more fun to get the feeling of it rather than just the words?