Karen S. Wiesner: Three-Dimensional Writing, Part 1

Writer's Craft Article by Karen S. Wiesner

Three-Dimensional Writing, Part 1

Based on Three-Dimensional Fiction Writing (formerly titled Bring Your Fiction to Life {Crafting Three-Dimensional Stories with Depth and Complexity})

This is the first of three posts dealing with three-dimensional fiction writing.

The word “three-dimensional” is not only easy to define as solid, realistic, rounded and lifelike, even living, but it also translates well into the craft of writing. Most writers know what is not three-dimensional writing. Simple words convey the concept: flat, cardboard, paper doll, unrealistic, unremarkable, un- or underdeveloped, dead. Writing that is three-dimensional seems to have length (the foundation of a story), width (structure), and depth (fully-fleshed-out characters, plots and settings rooted in layers of rich, textured scenes).

Three-dimensional writing is what allows a reader to step through the pages of a book and enter the world created, where plot and characters are in that glorious, realistic realm that starts with little more than a line and progresses into shape and finally represents solid form. Once three-dimensionality is grasped, all things are possible: direction, motion, focus, vivid color, texture, harmony, variety in which change is attainable and value becomes concrete. Three-dimensional writing needs to start with three-dimensional characters.

Three-Dimensional Characters

Using sketches to develop character is the technique that comes closest to reaching the 3-D goal. However, the biggest problem is that only one dimension of main character is generally sketched out on these worksheets: Namely, the “present self” character. Each main character in a book needs a present self (the person he is in the now of the active story), a past self (who this individual was before that led him into becoming who he currently is), and a future self (who he’ll be in the time ahead, refined and shaped by current situations, conflicts, other characters, and his settings). If you want three-dimensional protagonists and antagonists with heartbreakingly realistic conflicts set in a world so vivid readers can actually enter it alongside the characters, you need to have all three “self” dimensions.

Character Dimensions: Present, Past and Future

Main characters need to be three-dimensional with a past, a present and a future, or they have no purpose in the story. So a simple character sketch worksheet that covers the most crucial aspects would include the following:

Main Character: Present/Past/Future Self


Character Role: (hero, heroine, secondary character, villain)

Physical Descriptions:

Personality Traits:

Strengths and Weaknesses:

Relationships: (parents, other important family and friends, romantic interests, enemies)


Plots/Subplots for this Character:

External Conflicts:

Internal Conflicts:

Goals and Motivations:

Important Settings for this Character:

Defining characters in the 3-D sketches allows you, the author, to know main characters through and through. Remember the difference in three-dimensional writing is that you’ll have a separate sketch for each main character that includes his present, past and future self. So take the basic sketch above and duplicate it three times across a landscaped page with three columns, labeling the sketches: “Present Self”, “Past Self” and “Future Self”.

The main reason writers don’t usually do a character sketch for each dimension of self is because they don’t think much will change from one sketch to the next, but characters wouldn’t be growing and developing if they remained static. Also, think of it this way: Are you the same person you were when you were born, two months old, 16 or 25 years old? Of course not. You can be sure you won’t be exactly the same person you are now 10 years, or even oneyear, from today either. In the same way, in order to create layered, developing characters you have to see where they are currently, where they came from, and where they may be heading. But it is true that too much shouldn’t change from one dimension to the next. A radical change in character is possible but usually only in extreme cases and only with solid justification. Alterations between the dimensional sketches will likely be subtle but allow development and growth to flourish. Out of these sketches, your story should begin to evolve organically.

These sketches aren’t simply a setting down of facts but the why. Digging deeper, what events, situations, people and places caused this character to think and act, react and interact the way she did, the way she does currently, the way she will do in the future?

To ensure you’re getting the maximum amount of “dimension” out of each self sketch, go back over them numerous times to make all as fleshed out as you possibly can. Obviously, though, not everything you end up putting in your sketches will make it into your story. There’s good cause for not overloading a book with the sheer weight of each main characters’ three-dimensional self, but the writer’s thorough knowledge of each dimension of the character not only benefits him but will certainly be worth the work put in because three-dimensional characters are haunting, timeless and unforgettable.

Present Self

In sketching the present dimension, you're essentially starting every character in the middle of her story. However, starting your sketches with the present dimension makes the most sense. Present character is always the person she is currently and sets the focus of the story you’re writing in the here and now. The more you get to know the character through present dimension, the more development you’ll gain in sketching her past and future dimensions. After all, a character's reaction to her experiences has a direct bearing on who she is and becomes, the choices she makes, and the actions she takes all through her life.

Maybe it's true that most people do have an innate way of being, conceivably born to act in a certain way, but in a work of fiction, a genetic disposition is of limited use. Instead, we focus on the universal truth that—like real people—almost all of a character's traits in the present are the result of the coping strategies used (good, bad, and everything between) and lessons learned (again, these reflect choices that are easy, hard, and all the nuances in-between) in every situation faced and the behavior that results. These are layers of that person's entire makeup. These change subtly over time. Naturally, the deeper you go into someone's past and psyche, the more your understanding of all that's shaped her growth.

When sketching the present dimension, you're creating a character who's worth following all the way through a story to the end. A good present dimension character will convey in a creative way what she's learned in life, what matters most to her in her current situation, and how she'd like her life to change or how she fears it will change. This is probably the easiest dimension, the one few authors would leave out since there would be no true story without it.

Past Self

Detailing the present dimension of your character is only the beginning. You need to weave pieces of the past throughout a story to flesh out the character’s past dimension. You can't truly understand who someone is until you've seen her developmental years, what she’s been through, and where she’s come from. I love how K.M. Weiland describes this in Improve Your Character Instantly: Just Add a Ghost when she says that what all characters have in common are the depths of their backstories. "They arrive at the beginning of their stories with baggage already in tow." (Incidentally, the "ghost" here is something from the past that haunts the character. Brilliant!) Baggage can be another term for the past dimension, a character's backstory.

The dictionary definition of backstory for fiction is the history or background created for a character that impacts the current events of the story. Backstory is everything that occurred before the current story that directly impactswhat will happen in the story. But it’s only necessary to include backstory that's relevant to current choices, decisions, or events. But, as I’ve said, the author needs to know backstory in advance in order to authentically layer his characters.

It's been said that backstory shouldn't be placed at the beginning of a story, but that's only partially true. While front-loading a story with huge chunks of backstory isn't ideal (it could get incredibly boring or hard for the reader to digest if too much comes at once), we need to enlighten and engage readers, not overwhelm and crush out any interest with overkill. The true issue is that pieces (not great chunks) of backstory are needed at all stages of a story. Fragments of backstory need to be placed carefully throughout a story from the beginning all the way through to the end. Doing this will reveal character, plot, and setting in all dimensions.

While it’s popular to crop out the past dimension to meet a limited word count, too much shearing will prove detrimental to the three-dimensionality of any story. On the other hand, there is a point where too much can be overkill and would be better placed in the notes of an annotated version of the book, should your popularity ever warrant such a thing.

In sketching the past dimension for your character, you need to consider what fits in terms of the physical descriptions, personality traits, strengths and weaknesses and skills she's acquired, relationships she’s had, the internal and external conflicts she’s faced, and the environment she grew up in. What resulting goals and motivations are in line with who this character was, is, and justifiably will become? Your character’s past dimension should inspire more development of her present, as well as the future dimension waiting in the wings.

These dimensions of self work together to form the basis for three-dimensionality. Who your character is in the present should be a direct result of many of the things in her past dimension. If she was a geeky girl teased relentlessly all through school, it wouldn’t be hard to establish that friends and romantic relationships were all but nonexistent for her past self. If her present-day character has had a dramatic appearance change, that’s cohesive with her past self because she developed her appearance as a result of her experience. Her current internal conflicts need to reflect the ones she dealt with in her past, and her goals and motivations nowshould be in line with her coping mechanisms then.

In Part 2 of this three-part article, we'll talk about Future Self.

Karen S. Wiesner is the author of Three-Dimensional Fiction Writing

Volume 5 of the 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection



Happy writing!

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series. Visit her here:




Older Post Newer Post