Four Dimensional Characterization
By Cate Russell-Cole

Before I discovered what I really enjoyed doing in life, I became a social worker. One of our lecturers gave us a sound piece of counseling advice that is also a brilliant tool in writing about fictional or real characters. ‘People behave in patterns. Look for the patterns, then you can start to understand what drives them.’ It gives you a clue as to their weaknesses, strengths and what makes them tick.

Characters appear not just in works of fiction. If you are writing an autobiographical or family history piece, describing people you know using characterization techniques, will make them jump out of the page, assisting the reader in relating to the person you’re talking about: including you!

People are at least four dimensional. We have our three dimensional physical form, which you can describe in terms of: how people look: hair, eye color, height, preferred clothing; mannerisms such as sitting a certain way, nodding frequently when listening, nervous habits; how they smell: do they regularly use tobacco, grind their own coffee, cook with garlic or use a signature cologne; what their voice, cough, sneeze, singing or laugh sounds like; problematic or distinctive characteristics such as oily hair, dry skin or uneven ears.

The fourth dimension is their positive or negative life experiences that replay in their subconscious mind, motivating their behavior and driving their emotions. This dimension is what produces most patterns. If you look again at the above list of physical attributes, some of them are behavioral patterns.

So what kind of patterns can you build into a character, or use to drive a storyline? If you do a Google search on patterns of behaviour, you will pull up 51,200,000 results, so there is no limit to what you can use! Don’t forget, you have a choice of positive and negative patterns. It is easy to limit your characters by placing the focus on negative behaviors, as the negative has such a strong emotional resonance with the reader. The serial womanizer; the bully; the shy person; the issue avoider; the addict; the co-dependent; the unlucky in love or the self destructive are familiar types. Try and also consider people’s strengths: confidence in their ability in a specific area; kindness towards strangers or animals; a belief one day they will make it no matter what; love of family; strong faith or intuition; determination; emotional stability.

If your character has been through a particular life experience, do a little research into the psychology behind it. It will assist you in building in personality traits and behavior patterns which make them realistic. For example, on the “My Way Out” web site, Mario is talking about the patterns of behavior you see in adults who come from families which were neurotic or alcoholic. He identifies six dominant behavioral patterns: the caretaker, people pleaser, martyr, workaholic, perfectionist and stump.

While those roles may look like cliches or stereotypes, many times it is the common attributes of people who have lived through these situations that give rise to those images, so you can’t always write them off as overused. Again, look for positive traits as well. The traits of a survivor pull people through their past and present challenges. They are strong motivators which can fuel heroes and heroines, even the every day kind.

People can also hide behind ‘socially acceptable’ patterns of behavior. Their own ability to understand how people can behave can be manipulated and used as a positive or negative force. For example, people who are charismatic or beautifully mannered, no matter what. They are a positive pleasure to know, until you really get to know them, then realize you were taken in by their social face. They are human icebergs: a majority of what they really think and feel is hidden under a calm layer of soothing, sky blue water. How much of that they admit to themselves can be another pattern.

If you’d like more information on using basic psychology to build characters, try the links in the Psychology Classroom at AllPsych Online or the Core Basics library at Psychology Today.

This article is Copyright Cate Russell-Cole 2007. It may only be reproduced, with my permission, for non commercial purposes only. My name and Copyright must remain intact. For permission, please email me at: [email protected]

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Cate Russell-Cole is an experienced freelance journalist, creativity and writing teacher and editor. She has been published in many local and Internet ezines, magazines and newspapers. Cate has been researching, writing and teaching her own courses since 1990. Her most successful course to date is “Write Your Life Story,” which has a thriving community on Facebook. Cate hosts other writer’s and life story writing resources on Twitter and Google Plus.

Examples of her published articles can be found on FaithWriters For more information, including work portfolios and samples of the courses, please visit the site:

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