3 Techniques for Creating Multidimensional Characters

When you think about the last book you read, what do you remember? Is it the twisty plot? The hauntingly beautiful setting? The mic drop moment?

No. I’d venture to guess that it was the characters—more specifically, that one complex character you couldn’t help but root for, cry with, or even despise. These fictional beings make a story great. Readers need to identify and connect with them to feel fully invested. They need to feel like real people, and real people have layers.

A multidimensional character isn’t just a list of traits or backstory. They are fully realized beings with triggering pasts, conflicting desires, and deep emotional wounds. Writing these personas is less about laying out all the information and more about understanding who they are — and why they do what they do. Your readers don’t necessarily need to know all the horrific ways your character’s childhood shaped them, but you do. That knowledge will help you reveal their actions in a more meaningful way.

So, how do you create multidimensional characters that will stay with your readers long after they’ve finished the book? I’ve explored character creation in previous articles, including archetypes and using Myers-Briggs, CliftonStrengths, and the Enneagram. But the topic is always worth further exploration. Here are three techniques for taking your fictional cast from flat caricatures to full-blown, three-dimensional people.

Base them on someone you know

Whether or not they admit it, most authors get ideas for their characters from people in their actual lives. It could be as surface-level as a barista with an ominous tattoo or as deep as a family member with a secret past. Either way, drawing from real-life individuals can add an extra layer of authenticity to your characters because they are based on real people with complexities and flaws.

While everyone (including you) is fair game in the inspiration department, please note that this should just be a jumping-off point. Don’t copy and paste your best friend’s personality into your protagonist. Instead, exaggerate his penchant for sarcasm and start asking yourself why someone might feel like they need to overcompensate in that way.

The goal should be to create unique, multidimensional characters that transcend their real-life counterparts. Think of it like a painter studying a model—they capture the essence, the lines, the shadows, but the final work is a creative interpretation, not a photographic replica. 

The same principle applies to character development. Observe the quirks, mannerisms, and complexities of those around you, then let your imagination run wild. Amplify certain traits, invent backstories, and combine elements from multiple sources to craft characters that feel authentic yet distinctly your own. 

Ultimately, the most compelling characters are those that surprise us, defy expectations, and reveal hidden depths that resonate with the human experience. 

Understand their primary motivation

Like real-life humans, every fictional character has a reason for doing what they do — and rarely do they speak it aloud. It’s the undercurrent that drives all of their actions, even if they’re not consciously aware of it. But as the author, you need to be. Because that understanding will help you craft their decisions in a way that is believable.

While the word “motivation” elicits thoughts of grandiose goals and secret agendas, what it really boils down to is fear. What is your character really afraid of? What’s that one thing that keeps them up at night?

I’m not talking about monsters under the bed. I’m talking about the insecurity that they’re not enough or the nagging doubt that they’ll never measure up. Once you understand this fear and how it affects your character’s daily life, their actions will start to make sense.

Here are a couple of core fears you and your readers might find familiar:

  • Abandonment
  • Failure
  • Rejection
  • Betrayal
  • Loss of control

Whatever fear your character has, their motivation will stem from it. Say your protagonist has a deep fear of failure. In a story where the primary plot involves her trying to save the world, understanding that root fear will help you show why she’s so willing to sacrifice everything and put herself in danger to succeed.

If her deepest fear was rejection, the story might play out differently. Maybe she struggles with seeking approval from others and constantly doubts her abilities, making her hesitant to take action in critical moments.

By understanding your character’s primary motivation, you can add depth and complexity to their actions, making them more realistic and relatable for readers.

Give them conflicting desires

In real life, we are constantly torn between what we want. Your characters should be no different. Giving them conflicting desires creates tension, adds complexity, and sets the stage for how they might grow throughout the story. It also makes them more relatable because there’s nothing more human than wanting two totally different things at the same time.

A good strategy for creating conflicting wants is to put their internal and external goals at opposite ends of the spectrum.

  • External goals are tangible and observable, like wanting to win a competition or get revenge on an enemy.
  • Internal goals are more emotional and hidden, such as wanting to find love or prove their self-worth.

For example, in the popular novel The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s external goal is to survive the deadly games and return home to her family. But internally, she desires freedom from the oppressive government forcing her to compete. These conflicting desires make her character compelling and relatable as she struggles between doing what she must to survive and doing what she believes is right.

By giving your characters conflicting desires, you create a more dynamic and realistic persona that readers will connect with on a deeper level. These competing desires can lead to tough decisions and create a clear path for your characters to evolve. By forcing them to make a choice, you are creating opportunities for growth and development — and allowing your readers to see them in a more nuanced light.

Need help bringing your characters to life?

Creating multidimensional characters happens both on and off the page. You need to take time to meditate on who they are, what drives them, and what they truly desire. Because it’s such a mental exercise, it can be helpful to bounce ideas off with someone else.

As a book coach, part of my role is to help authors understand their characters more personally. Through exercises, brainstorming sessions, and in-depth discussions, we can humanize your fictional cast so readers will remember them long after the book is closed.

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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