Sue Harrison’s “Writing The Third Dimension”- part 2: Cut the Puppet Strings!

Welcome! Over the next many months we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison‘s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read all the segments by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on the drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month two:


“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 2: Cut the Puppet Strings!

One of my little life treasures is a slip of paper from my uncle that is filled with handwritten notes about characterization. Uncle Bill was a composer, symphony conductor, and concert pianist, very eccentric and very brilliant. When I was in college, I worked up enough nerve to begin sending him some of my short stories.  He became my coach, cheerleader, and harshest critic, exactly what I needed at that time.  I finally wrote a novelette and sent that 40,000 words of drivel to him.  

Uncle Bill wrote a critique of my novelette, and, when he was at the post office to mail that critique to me, he ripped a deposit slip out of his checkbook and wrote this on the back: [his words and spelling] “Your characters must be so real they even defy the author.  They wake you up in the middle of the nite and spit right in your eye. You are not creating puppets that do what you want but live living beings that act their life right in front of you. You will do well to write it down fast enough when this happens.” In the critique, one of  his sentences reads: “I know more about the sidewalk [in your manuscript] than I do about your main character.” My manuscript had a fatal flaw. I had managed to write 40,000 words without allowing any of my characters to step off the page and assume three dimensions. I’d written a whole novelette about people who were merely puppets, and their strings were showing.

In my first “Writing the Third Dimension” post here on Polilla Writes, we talked about carrying your characters around in your head until you know them well enough to understand what will destroy them. That’s identifying the huge center of your character, but you also have to know all those quirky little things that will make your character real and loveable and irascible, those attributes that will make your character memorable to your readers.

If you are just beginning your novel, or if, in rereading your manuscript, you feel that your characters are stiff and fake, buy, beg, or scarf up a three-ring binder. Fill it with lined loose-leaf paper, or, if you’re a techie, start a file on your computer or iPad. As you carry your main character around in your head, take notes about him or her. Don’t try to get too organized about this. Right now you’re a hunter-gatherer. Hunt for the stuff and jot it down. When you’re answering the telephone, stop and think how your main character would answer the telephone. When you’re ordering pizza, decide what your main character would like on his pizza. If you’re clicking through the channels on your television, figure out what your main character would watch. What would he read? What car would she buy? Where does he like to vacation? If you’re writing about a different era than modern times, what horse would she ride? What fabric would she choose for her new dress? What did he name his spaceship? Write it all down.

Cut out photographs from magazines or eZines and save them until you have a composite picture of what your main character looks like. Here’s a huge secret about writing that I’ll tell you now and also tell you again in later posts. If your visualization of your character (or a setting or an item) is fuzzy in your mind, it will be visually fuzzy to your reader. That’s one of the few rules of writing that’s pretty much set in stone. Learn to see your character in action in your mind. How does he run? Like Harrison Ford? How does she smile? Like Julia Roberts?  Close your eyes and visualize until you see that character so clearly you could be watching her on television.

Last month, we were looking at the big picture – the center of your character’s being, his self-esteem, her reason for living. This month, we’re talking about the details, figuring out all the small stuff that makes people real. Next month? The whole picture. Remember, the stronger your characters, the better chance you’ll have to be published, which means that I’ll get to read your books. I can’t wait!

My questions for you: What color is your main character’s hair?  What does your main character love to do in his free time?

Any questions for me?  Please feel free to ask!

Blessings and Happy Writing!


*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy, and a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you come back March 28, 2013, for part 3.

14 responses to “Sue Harrison’s “Writing The Third Dimension”- part 2: Cut the Puppet Strings!

  1. This is just wonderful. You know I don’t write fiction, but I’ve been carrying the name of a woman around in my head for two years. Maybe longer. I’m not starting a novel, but I am going to see if I can bring her to life – maybe in a little short story. I’ve always thought she belonged in a children’s story, but maybe not. Anyway, I’ve got my notebook right here, and away we go!


  2. Hooray, shoreacres! How fun to bring that woman to life. A short story is a wonderful way to explore the art of characterization. Let us know how it goes for you!!


  3. Fun post, Sue! I love to find pictures of my characters. Sometimes in the search I discover something totally unexpected about a character. That’s when I really hit pay dirt.


  4. Wow! This one page is the most informative article on writing a novel that I have ever read..Thanks, Sue!…maybe some day…………….


  5. I would love to read what you write, Mary!!


  6. Michelle, I had a funny experience today as I was visualizing my main character in my current work-in-progress. I “saw” her push her hair back with her right hand. I love how those things come through, just like you’re watching a movie!


  7. Sue, I just fell over laughing at your uncle’s statement that he knew more about the sidewalk than the character. I know just the kind of story he’s talking about. Thanks as always for sharing your wisdom.


  8. The rotten thing is that I can STILL write like that, Janie!!


  9. What AWESOME advice! Thanks! (and I kind of always wanted real life puppets too) 😉


  10. How excellent to receive that kind of tough love from a brilliant, creative uncle! Knowing all the quirky little things about your characters — very well put. Thanks for this. Though I normally write non-fiction, I have a fiction project I work on in spurts. Question: I feel the male lead character is much more developed than the female lead. Any hints for 3-D characters of the opposite sex? Thanks.


  11. My sister always had a puppet, Erik. I was more into having a dog!


  12. Wow, good question, Bill. First, in fiction, you generally do want a “lead” character who is the dominant POV even in a multi-character/multi-storyline novel. It sounds like your male lead fulfills that need. However, you’re right to want to make that female lead 3-D. Here’s what works for me – I ask my husband. As in, “What would you do if….?” “How do you feel about…?” The other good way to round out that character is to sit down and watch a couple “chick flicks.” Honest, your wife didn’t put me up to this! Take notes, especially about body language. A couple more hints: most women think a lot about colors and small details. You might also want to have fun with her inner voice. If your male lead talks/thinks in relatively short sentences and his ideas come quickly, you might write her thoughts in long trailing sentences with many comma-separated clauses. (Or vice versa.) Isn’t it so much fun to develop characters!!


  13. Great advice that I plan to heed. We can get so caught up in setting we forget the charcaters reaction to it. I need to constanlty remind myself about that!


  14. I still need that reminder, too, Darlene. Setting is a wonderful support system for our characters, and sometimes it can even function as a character, but as a general rule people are interested in people more than anything else! Thank you for your comment, Darlene!


I look forward to reading your greatly appreciated comments. Thanks for making my day! :)

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