Posted On November 19, 2012 by Print This Post

Secrets to Turn a Character from Cardboard to 3-D with Cherry Adair

Help me welcome one of my favorite people (even if she doesn’t realize I stalk her on Facebook) Cherry Adair! Today, she’ll chat with us about making our characters three dimensional.

Writing interesting characters – making them three dimensional- is the very heartbeat of a good story. Even if one’s plot is ho hum, if your reader connects with your characters you’ll keep them turning pages (and lining up to buy your next book and the next).

My first step in building an interesting character is their name. It shouldn’t be something unpronounceable with lots of letters and no vowels, or something so unusual that every time it’s on the page it slows down the reader as their brain stumbles over the unfamiliar. We don’t want readers spending the entire book trying to figure out how to pronounce a name.

I always give my main character’s a first, middle and last name. (What does their mother yell when she’s mad at them? lol) Even if you never use that middle name, you should know it. As soon as I name a character, I want to know what other people in the book are going to call them. Is it a nickname? A pet name? Is one character the only person that calls her by this particular name when everyone calls her something else? Do they like the name, hate the name, call themselves by another name?

Next find an image. I tend not to use celebrities because they already have characteristics I know. I look for a fresh face, a blank canvas, so my characters are mine, all mine.

Next I give them a birthday. I don’t allow myself to think about it, or read astrological signs – Do this fast. I just tell myself this characters birthday is March 21st 1992. Done. I do this for each major character, and that includes villains (it doesn’t have to be a mustache twirling bad guy – it could be the hero’s mother-in-law.) All the main characters have a birthday. Day, month and year. The most important thing with birthdays is you can not change it once you chose it! No matter what.

Once you have a birthday, research that astrological sign and you’ll see who your person is. Pick three to five character traits, and use at least one in every scene that character is in. No matter whose POV you’re in. If the person is on the page, make sure they have characteristics individual to them. If this is who you want, you’re golden. You have all their characteristics under their sun sign, and you’re ready to write. What if the astrological sign isn’t who you want your character to be? Snoopy dance! But I love it when I inadvertently end up with a person I didn’t want, and have no desire to write. This is striking gold! (remember, no changing birthdays). If you have a meek and mild astrological sign, when the character you want is a kick butt fire sign, then you need to go into their backstory and see what changed them from meek, to fire. Give them life experiences, learning curves, lessons in their past, things that have changed them (for better or worse). Make them who you want them to be, but be sure to motivate those changes.

What’s fabulous about this is that you make sure that the ‘original them’ peeks through now and then. You can decide if, when the chips are down, they use everything they’ve learned over the years, or if they revert back to who they used to be.

Once I have their name, date of birth, and characteristics, I write their backstory. I want to know about their family (even if that family never appears on the page) How they were raised, how they grew up, who their patents are/were, how their parents treated them, their birth order, their level of education- all these things go into who they are the moment they first appear on the page. Be sure to add milestones in their life, the good and the bad. Know what they love. What they hate. What is their Kryptonite? What do they consider their strengths? What do they consider their weaknesses? What makes them happy. How do they feel about money (or lack thereof). Another thing I always know about a character before I start writing is how they behave if they’re scared. What is their tendency? To run away? To ask for help? To tackle even the scariest situation by themselves?

Knowing all of the above about your characters before you write Chapter One gives you a solid base to build your 3-D characters on so that once you start writing, you don’t have to come up with his brother’s name on the fly, or decided half way through the book it would be cool if he’s an orphan.

If he’s a three dimensional person in your head, he’ll saunter onto the page, thumbs in his back pockets, scar on his hard head from falling off the jungle gym when he was seven, barely healed heart after Roxanne jilted him at the alter when he was twenty-six, squinting because he refuses to wear his glasses. He’ll look out of that page with so much personality readers will hold their breath as they turn the page to see what he’ll do next.

Excerpt: T-FLAC operative Rafael Navarro will never allow another woman to suffer the consequences of his dangerous life. But in a world where a terrorist can do more damage with a keyboard than a bomb, he needs the expert help of a cyber-geek. And fast.
Fellow operative, and cybercrimes specialist Honey Winston prefers computers to people. But when a serial bomber threatens the world’s financial infrastructure, she’s forced to work closely with Navarro, whose notorious skill in the bedroom is as legendary as his dexterity defusing bombs.
Honey and Rafael must fight sparks hot enough to melt their resolve, and push beyond fear itself, as they join forces in a bid to race the clock before a sinister and lethal bomber proves just how much they both have to lose.
T-FLAC is back, and the timer is counting down in the most pulse-pounding explosive op yet.


RU writers – do you have a little secret on how to make your character believable?

Join us on Wednesday for Laura O’Connell on how to avoid Beige Writing.


Bio: An adventurer in life as well as writing, New York Times bestselling author Cherry Adair moved halfway across the globe from Cape Town, South Africa, to the United States in her early years to become an interior designer. Now a resident of the Pacific Northwest, she shares the award-winning adventures of her fictional T-FLAC counterterrorism operatives with her readers.

Popular on the workshop circuit, Cherry gives lively classes on writing and the writing life. Pulling no punches when asked how to become a published writer, Cherry insists, “Sit your butt in the chair and write. There’s no magic to it. Writing is hard work. It isn’t for sissies or whiners.”

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22 Responses to “Secrets to Turn a Character from Cardboard to 3-D with Cherry Adair”

  1. Hi Cherry,

    Baby names are political battles in my family. I try to bring some of it to my book character names, especially my heroine.

    Loved your book Afterglow.

    Mary Jo
    (named after my mother and two great aunts)

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | November 19, 2012, 7:13 am
  2. Morning Cherry!

    My birthday is March 21….lol..but I won’t mention the year! =)

    My characters seem to come to me when I’m driving down the road or sleeping. Sometimes they have a head start as someone I’ve met in real life. Then i assemble them like Frankenstein – this type of walk, that type of hair, this cocky grin. =)

    But I think picking the birthday is brilliant. I’m definitely going to use that one!

    Thanks for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 19, 2012, 8:51 am
    • Hi Carrie – All characters, whether we realize t or not, are Frankensteined from people we know, or see on tv I think. The trick is making sure they are totally your own when you’re done. And even when they come to us almost fully formed, it’s a great honing tool to then give them a birthday to round them out fully.

      Posted by Cherry Adair | November 19, 2012, 12:08 pm
  3. Cherry – Thanks for being with us today!

    I heard your advive on picking the birthdays and then using the astrological signs – in fact I ordered Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs on my smartphone before I left the workshop! I use that method now and it really works – challenges me to make my characters walks a journey that will have to tackle those traits to get where they want to be at the end of the book.

    How do you tackle making sure you don’t hav eone character that overpowers the others? I always tend to have one that is a force of nature.

    Thanks, Robin Covington

    Posted by Robin Covington | November 19, 2012, 9:05 am
  4. I love the idea of not changing the birthday no matter what. I have been researching signs before I choose the birthday but can see where your method would give me a more rounded character.

    Posted by stephanieberget | November 19, 2012, 9:59 am
  5. Hello to the fabulous Cherry Adair! Thank you for being with us today.

    I too ordered Linda Goodman’s book after seeing your workshop at RWA a couple of years ago. It’s a terrific resource.

    I also interview my characters before I start plotting. I use the same questions each time, but I always wind up learning something about the character that winds up being an “aha” moment. I think it might be my favorite part of the process.

    Thanks for hanging out with us today!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | November 19, 2012, 11:10 am
  6. Hi Cherry – I’m soooo excited to see you here! I love your books!

    That’s a good point about names that aren’t too difficult to pronounce. I read a really good Scandinavian mystery, but it was very slow going because the names were all unfamiliar to me.

    Thanks for all the suggestions – I just bookmarked your post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 19, 2012, 11:34 am
  7. Welcome to RU, Cherry! So nice to see you again.

    I believe the first workshop I attended of yours was at the 2010 Chicago Spring Fling conference. You introduced me to SO many new ways of looking at my characters and starting new scenes (WITFPOTS!).

    Do you feel that your process continues to shift and sway with each book, or do you have it down to a science?

    Thanks again, and I hope Adrienne and I can harass you again at another conference soon!! 😉 I’m still picturing you putting together that portable clothes hanger/closet. LOL


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | November 19, 2012, 12:05 pm
  8. Hi Tracey –Ahh. Spring Fling 2010. I remember stealing all those people and hiding in the conference room, plotting, while everyone else at the conference wondered where half the attendees were. Lol That was a ridiculous amount of fun!! I love, love love all the people in Chicago —–THIS MUCH —-

    I don’t ever have anything down to a science, even after writing this many books! But this character building thing works brilliantly for me, so I do it for every book. Every now and then I’ll learn something else, and I just add it to what I already do. I have a Master Document for each book, and it’s constantly evolving as (hopefully!) I evolve.

    Posted by Cherry Adair | November 19, 2012, 12:19 pm
  9. Love this. Seems to simplify the character creation process. Much easier than a 100-question chart.

    I don’t have one but I can share one I read just last week: author Kathryn Springer, in a guest post at Seekerville, suggesting not simply giving characters a quirk or flaw but tying it to something in their past.

    Posted by PatriciaW | November 19, 2012, 1:20 pm
  10. Hi Cherry,

    Great post! I like to give my characters a guilty pleasure, usually food, that they don’t want others to know about. For instance, a classically trained chef loves Hostess cupcakes because they remind her of her childhood. It’s her go to food when she’s feeling bad.

    Thanks for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 19, 2012, 2:01 pm
  11. Thank you, a very useful post. I liked the bit about the astrology, although in general, I’m not big into astrology.

    Posted by Maria | November 20, 2012, 2:53 am
  12. One of my characters squints b/c he refuses to wear glasses, LOL! I love having the character’s backstory all ready before writing.

    Posted by Laurie Evans | November 20, 2012, 9:46 pm
  13. Hi Cherry,

    Glad your here and I am so excited to read your post. I am a big fan of your books too.

    Posted by YourContentCorner | November 22, 2012, 10:21 pm
  14. I took your tip about giving my characters birthdays – random dates and then checking out their ‘signs’ for character starting point (or character summary I could mess up:)…and it was eerie. Each seriously random date ‘worked’ for each one of my five characters – especially the hero and heroine… 🙂

    Enjoy your books, and your workshops (attended the one at RWA12), and looking forward to seeing you in NOLA in December.

    Great post.

    Posted by Denny S. Bryce | November 23, 2012, 9:01 am

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