Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Creating Three-Dimensional Characters with Lynne Gentry

A little over two years ago, my close writer friend and I, Lynne Gentry, started working on a medical thriller series together that is set in Africa. Lynne is not only a writer, but is trained in both speech and theater and works as an acting coach, so I found her insights into characterization fascinating. Not only did she help bring our characters to life, but she taught me how to go deeper into understanding my characters. So for today's post, I asked Lynne to share with us how we can create three-dimensional characters.

Here is what she has to say:

What is a well-drawn character and how do you draw one? While these questions are tackled at every writer’s conference, it’s easier to bag the wind than nail down the one thing that makes a character real in a reader’s mind.


Because characterization requires layers…lots of them. That one elusive device or trick that makes a flat character three-dimensional doesn’t exist. It takes many tools to fashion a person the reader will care about. I’d like to share a simple tool I’ve added to my writing craft box, one I picked up from twenty years of helping novice actors excel on the stage.

According to Albert Mehrabin, a noted expert on nonverbal communication, only 7% of what we communicate is communicated with words. The other 93% is communicated with 55% body language and 38% vocal intonation. Where do these alarming numbers leave wordsmiths like us? Up a creek…unless we learn to manipulate our words in order to give our characters movement and sound.

One quick and easy way to make progress toward accomplishing this feat is with costuming.

Far too often we dress our characters in jeans and a shirt and send them forth in our WIP without further consideration. But taking a moment to select costume pieces that either restrict or increase a character’s fluidity of movement can create mental body language specific for that character. Simply by adding body language, we’ve increased the believability of a character’s dialogue by 55%.

How does costuming work? For the stage, I can take a stay-at-home mom who’s comfortable in her sweats and costume her in a suit and heels and suddenly she moves like the CEO of a major corporation. Can this happen on the page? Absolutely.

In her stunning debut novel, The Russian Concubine, Kate Furnivall gives an example of costuming’s influence upon a character’s fluidity of movement. When Alfred, an uppity Englishman, makes his stage entrance in the middle of a filthy Chinese market, he is dressed in a cream linen suit. Immediately, the reader sees a man desperate to keep himself pristine. Ever tried to keep a toddler’s sticky hands off of your white blouse? Then you have a mental visual of how Alfred would move to protect his clothes in this uncomfortable environment. And it is in our mental movements of Alfred that he suddenly becomes…more real.

Want to know more about creating characters that leap from the page? Visit my StageWrite blog and follow along as we investigate ways to use costuming to create well-drawn characters and then use costume changes to create that illusive character arc. Or if you are the impatient type and would rather not have this information piecemealed out, order the Paper Doll CD and hear the whole spiel.


LISA HARRIS is an award-winning author who has over twenty novels and novella collections in print. She and her husband, Scott, along with their three children, live near the Indian Ocean in Mozambique as missionaries. When she’s not working she loves hanging out with her family, cooking different ethnic dishes, and heading into the African bush on safari. You can find out more about her latest suspense novels here.


  1. I've heard about Lynne's Paper doll presentation. I would like to see it, but if I can't do that, I'm sure the CD would be good.

  2. Boy, am I glad I found this blog! Thanks, Lynne, for the tips AND for posting the link on Fb.
    Blessings to all...

  3. Great tips on characterization. Thanks for posting. I hope you'll post some more tips like this.

  4. Lynne, Wonderful tips to make the characters come alive.

  5. Great tips for making our characters real. I've always struggled to take notice of what my characters are wearing. Your tips will now make me more aware of this. Thanks, Lynne.