The Three Dimensions of Character Development

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by Larry Brooks on January 27, 2010

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 Storyfix.com.

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.

 

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