Category Archives: Characterization Series

The Three Dimensions of Character Development

Somewhere along the writing road you’ve surely read – and if you haven’t you will – a critic describe a protagonist in a story as one dimensional.  Or worse, an agent to whom you’ve submitted your work.

The implication here is that there are other dimensions to explore as we develop our characters.

But what are they? 

Why don’t we ever hear characters described as two-dimensional?  What’s that extra dimension about, anyhow?  What does it even mean?

And why are the only obvious three dimensional characters out there lately in a James Cameron blockbuster, or marching in a Disneyland parade? 

At least we know what that means.

The Deeper Dimensions of Character

Given the implication that we should strive to write multi-dimensional characters, especially heroes and villains, it behooves us to understand what those other dimensions are all about.

As with story structure, you could indeed just set out to intuitively slap together a little character depth – in effect, the pantsing approach to character development. 

Maybe you get it right, maybe you don’t.  Maybe that’s a coincidence, or maybe your intuition is keenly developed.

Such is the risk of pantsing in any area of story development.  If you don’t know what you’re shooting for, just making stuff up as you go, it probably won’t work.  At least until you write another draft.

Or you could, by design, imbue your characters with three very separate and compelling layers –dimensions, in this context – that are carefully crafted to bring your story alive with resonant depth.

Real life unfolds in 3-D.  So should our characters.

These three realms stand alone as unique, yet they always overlap. 

Human beings are the sum of all three dimensions.  What the world sees, even if it’s all a smoke screen for dark and deeply hidden secrets, is an amalgamation of their best and worst essences.

Sometimes it’s those dark and deeply hidden secrets that make your characters especially compelling.  And the reasons for the need to hide them become part of the puzzle your story must unravel.

The first dimension of character – surface traits, quirks and habits.

Think of this as the exterior landscape of your character.  Their personality.  What the world sees and assigns meaning to.  Or not.

It may be the real, it may be a mask, but without another dimension to go along with all those quirks the reader will never know.

Peripheral characters in our stories are usually one-dimensional, as they should be.  In fact, it’s a mistake to delve too deeply into peripheral characters merely for the sake of adding depth.

Not good.  Focus on developing your hero and villain and any major players.   We really don’t need to know what it was about the pizza delivery guy’s childhood that made him take up food service as a career.

That said, even your peripheral characters, if given stereotypical quirks and tics, come off as cliché. 

Quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness is a fool’s game in the storytelling trade.

The grouchy lieutenant in the local police precinct who never smiles and is always spilling coffee on his cheap shirt?  That’s a one-dimensional character.

The slimy politician preaching values on the evening news before stopping by a brothel on his way home?  That’s a one dimensional character.

Why?  Because we don’t know what, if anything, is behind those behaviors, or those quirks.  If the character is a hero or a villain, we need to know.

This is often a great trap of newer writers, who infuse their characters with all manner of quirks and kinks and little tics designed to make them either cool, weird or supposedly – best intentions — compelling.   But if those quirks and kinks are all you offer the reader, in the hope that the reader will fill in all the blanks, then you’ve created a one-dimensional character.

If the quirks are just too quirky, it’s actually worse than cliché.

Because when quirks are obvious attempts to imbue the character with greater depth, but that depth is otherwise lacking… this is the quintessential one- dimensional character that agent will use as rationale for rejecting your story.

The second dimension of character – backstory and inner demons.

In this realm we see the inner landscape of the character.  Regardless of how you’ve dressed them up with personality on the exterior.

Where they came from, the scars and memories and dashed dreams that have left them with resentments, their fears, habits, weaknesses and inclinations that connect to why they are as they appear to be.  

Even when the quirks are a smokescreen.

Glimpsing an inner landscape allows the reader to understand, which is the key to eliciting empathy.  Empathy is the great empowerer of stories – the more of it the reader feels, the more they’ll invest themselves in the reading experience.

Translation: a publishable story.  Maybe even a bestseller.

Think about the books you love and the characters that star in them.  The reason you love that story has as much or more to do with the character than the plot, and the reason that’s true is because you feel for the character, you get her or him, you empathize, you invest yourself emotionally in the reading experience.

You rooted.  You cried.  You chewed your nails.  You loved.  You felt loss and you shared joy. 

You cared.  Because you related to, and empathized with, the character.

The most fertile ground for the cultivation of this reader response is the inner landscape of your primary characters.

Quirks or no quirks, this is the real stuff of storytelling.

But you’re not done yet.  There’s a third dimension you must add to bring it home. 

Because even the best and most understood of intentions do not a hero or a villian make. 

The third dimension of character – action, behavior and world view.

A hero takes a stand, takes risks, makes decisions, dives in and executes.

A villain rationalizes behavior and is insensitive to, or refuses to accept responsibility for, the associated costs and violations of accepted social standards.

Character – in this sense defined as moral substance, or lack thereof – is defined not by backstory or inner demons, but by decisions and behaviors.

You may have been angry enough to kill someone, or at least punch someone’s lights out, at some point in your life.  But you didn’t.  Why?  Because of your character.  That decision defines you.

Now imagine that you had yielded to that impulse.  Same backstory, same inner turmoil and agenda, same inciting series of events, same emotions… different decision. 

And because of that decision – you cold-cocked the bastard – a completely different dimension of character manifests.

The Art of Integrating the Three Dimensions of Character

Using this example, it is clear that the first two dimensions may or may not dictate the third.  These are your tools as an author, layer by layer, to create the most compelling, complex, frightening, endearing and empathetic character that you can.

Too many writers settle for the first dimension only. 

Even more writers focus on the second dimension to the exclusion of the third.

Even more fail to integrate these realms convincingly and compellingly.

That’s the art of storytelling.  And there’s no manual for it beyond a grasp of these fundamental principles. 

But be clear: your work as a storyteller is not done until your hero and your villain are fully fleshed out in all three realms.  

Do that, and do it well – which means, the relationship between the three dimensions make perfect and compelling sense – and you’ll never hear that one-dimensional or shallow criticism leveled at your characters again.

COMING SOON — “The Three Dimensions of Character — Going Deep and Wide to Create Compelling Heroes and Villains“… a new ebook from

Also, check out my guest blog on The World’s Strongest Librarian, a  very cool website by Josh Hanagarne, who is the strongest – and tallest – librarian you’ve ever seen.



Filed under Characterization Series

A Deeper Look at Character

 I know this guy.  Everybody in our circle of friends knows him.  They go back years (not me, I’m the newbie in the group, which makes me analogous to the reader of a story… I just sit back and watch the pages unfold).  Everybody, in context to this group dynamic, seems to like him.

But do they really

Sometimes the more you know about a person, the harder they are to like.  This fellow, for example, has been cheating on his wife off and on for decades.  Everybody in the room knows it – except, perhaps, his wife. 

Who, incidentally, everybody not only likes, but also empathizes with.  And the only person in the room who doesn’t realize that is the cheating bastard himself.

The guy is funny and often charming, the first one with an amusing story and an entertaining way to tell it.  He’s warm, he hides his agenda well.  Doesn’t want to ruffle feathers.  Let’s just have a good time, get this evening over with without incident.

Such is the stuff of our stories. 

Because our characters have secrets to hide, stories to tell, facades and illusions to maintain.  But in our stories, it’s not that simple to walk away from at the end of the evening.

Because unlike reality, our readers are distanced from a childhood investment that allows for forgiveness.  Readers have only one criteria for sticking around, and it’s simple – are they hooked?

If not, they’ll walk for good.

And it takes more than a smokin’ & jokin’ good time protagonist to hook a reader.

So what does hook a reader in terms of character? 

Certainly, our heroes and villains, even our bit-players, should be complex and imperfect.   But in fiction, the art of crafting a compelling character isn’t their likeability.   Not even close. 

Whoever told you that was probably your high school creative writing teacher.  We need to like our protagonist echoes through halls of time, often distorting what the evolved writer needs to really understand.

Maybe we like them, maybe we don’t.  That’s not the issue.

Because when it comes to a protagonist, we must root for them.  Remember, the essence of storytelling holds that we have placed that character on a path, with something at stake, with something to do, to achieve, to learn and to change.  And we have placed obstacles – some external, some from within their deepest psyches – to make the journey interesting.

Not so much for them, but for us – the readers.

 The trick, then, becomes the balancing of character imperfections that might otherwise put us off with the empathy we need to muster for our hero as they proceed on their quest.

Here’s the key to doing that: readers love a vulnerable hero who realizes her or his own weaknesses and temptations, and conquers them in favor of a higher calling.  They come to realize that they’re sorry, they repent, they heed a  more noble calling, at least in the context of the story at hand.

That, we can empathize with.  We can get behind such a hero, root for her or him, even if it’s temporary.  Because we’ve all been there, we’re all human.

It is the writer’s manipulation of reader empathy, rather than the nature of faults and gold stars, that results in effective character dynamics that infuse the story with stakes and vicarious emotion. 

Which are absolutely required to get it published.

If your hero thinks nobody else in the room knows about his wandering ways, or worse, if they know he’ll back cruising the bars the next night in the naïve assumption that nobody knows, or worse, that nobody minds… that’s the antithesis of a hero.

Even if we seem to like him over a beer or two.   That’s real life, perhaps, but it’s not enough to make your story work.  In fiction, the term hero needs to be taken literally.


Filed under Characterization Series