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.

 

Laura Thompson January 27, 2010 at 5:54 am

True artists and great storytellers can always surprise the reader when the third dimension of character development surfaces. Like you said, the way a character behaves when confronted with conflict might or might not be rooted in his or her life experience.

It’s like the criminology issue of children who are abused and turn out to be murderers. For every axe-wielding sociopath, there’s someone else who endured the same horrors and used those experiences to foster empathy. Some continue the cycle of abuse, while others flip the coin and become social workers or psychotherapists or advocates.

It doesn’t matter how wonderful a story is — if I don’t care about the characters and why they make their decisions, I’ll likely never pick up a book by the same author again.

I have never seen the three dimensions of character laid out so succinctly before, however, and I think this will help a lot of writers. It’s so easy to fall back on cliches and trite mannerisms, assuming those details bring a story to life.

Sean Platt January 27, 2010 at 8:21 am

Laura, I agree on both counts: it’s all too easy to fall back on cliches. And I’ve never seen character development laid out so well anywhere else either.

Mary E. Ulrich January 27, 2010 at 8:45 am

Thanks Larry, this answers some of my questions from your last post.

Bruce H. Johnson January 27, 2010 at 9:09 am

And please, writers, don’t try to give us the entire back story in one fell swoop; I’ve seen several stories in which you wade through several paragraphs/pages of “He’d gone to Swiffer Jr. High where absolutely nothing happened.”

On the other hand, the first Act/Part One (the Set-up) needs to reveal at least some indication of all the three dimensions. Please don’t leave the revelation that the protagonist is a projecting telepath until Plot Point Two.

There’s probably nothing wrong in designing your secondary characters to have three dimensions, especially if they are allies of the hero. People tend to associate with those like them, so make the allies at least somewhat compatible.

Justin Matthews January 27, 2010 at 10:59 am

I am currently starting a novel and this post has given me some great ideas. Thanks for that and the great chuckle from “you cold-cocked the bastard” one of my favorite phrases ever. This site is so full of great stuff, I have incorporated many tips into writing my novel.
Thanks again Larry
Justin

Debbie Burke January 27, 2010 at 11:17 am

Great post, Larry. Clear, concise explanation of levels of character and how we as writers can put them to work for our stories.

One phrase “a hero of a villain” caught my eye. Prob’ly a typo “of” instead of “or”. But the phrase itself gives rise to a compelling idea. What if a villain IS a hero too? There’s another post for you!

Thanks as always for your words of wisdom.

Gwen Hernandez January 27, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Great post. I just found your site recently, and I’m hooked. I’m on the revision stage of my current MS and trying to strengthen everything.

Thanks for all of the helpful tips!

Jenny January 27, 2010 at 1:37 pm

I’m working on a non-fiction piece and this is making me do a little self-reflection to ensure I am 3-dimensional as well :) Also, thank you for making me think about balls for approximately 5 minutes yesterday and then 2 minutes this morning when I remembered, “I read a post about testicles yesterday.” My Tuesday just wouldn’t have been the same otherwise.

Brian January 27, 2010 at 4:32 pm

“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”

Yep, I don’t read a book to find out how somebody get through that obstacle, I read to find out how *this character* gets through that obstacle.

Patrick Sullivan January 28, 2010 at 12:23 am

Since creating characters is something that’s always bugged me at a fundamental level, I picked up a book on archetypes for fiction a while back (Complete Guide to Heroes and Heroines) and when I think back over the material in that book it almost feels like a foundation point upon which to build the material you gave in this post into the full character. Hm may have to reread that one while referencing this (and your new ebook soon, sounds like) and try to interweave the two bits of info into an interesting whole.

Martijn Groeneveld January 28, 2010 at 1:55 am

Hi Larry,

How does sub-text fit in with this? Another layer, or something that is similar to one of the three mentioned?

greetings,
Martijn

Rebecca January 28, 2010 at 10:38 am

Character creation and development is probably my favorite part of writing. I tend to walk through life absorbing the traits and emotions of those around me and I love wringing them back out onto the page – if only to free myself from them! I really enjoyed this post because it helped give a framework and a language to describe what I do in character development. Thanks!

jennifer blanchard January 28, 2010 at 10:58 am

Thank you for this very informative post, Larry. I really enjoyed it, and it helped me affirm that I’m doing a good job in the planning of my current novel’s main character! I can’t wait for the eBook!

Samantha Clark January 28, 2010 at 12:34 pm

This is a great post on character and something every writer should bookmark. Thanks, Larry.

J.Morgan January 28, 2010 at 2:24 pm

I love how you map out the three dimensions. I spend allot of time on my character’s dimensions. It makes me feel apart of them and in turn gives me a new perspective on the story and perhaps tweak the plot a bit now and then. To know how his parents died and how it affected his life or how he would react to someone coming up to him and putting a gun to his head. It all makes writing him so much easier.

Thanks for putting it all down.

Suzannah-Write It Sideways January 29, 2010 at 10:15 am

Wonderful explanation of character. I agree with Bruce—it’s terribly annoying to be given an information overload at the beginning of a book. It takes skill to subtly weave all this characterization into the story.

I’m bookmarking this one :)

Rusty Gagnon January 29, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Good column. Clear – concise. And not as wordy as a lot of them have been of late (and not obviously marketing your latest). This one I printed out and added to your first ebook which I purchased.
R.

Lynne Spreen February 3, 2010 at 9:51 am

First, an apology. I just commented on your current post and it looks like I’m flogging my website. sorry!
Re three dimensions, I was just working on my novel and it occurred to me that characters develop three dimensions as the book develops, too. Evidence: first dimension: you see the character. Second: you learn her thoughts. Third: toward the end of the book she hopefully swings into action. Thanks for your guidance.

Mimi August 15, 2012 at 12:25 am

Thanks so much – this is really helpful. Plus you made me laugh with the “cold-cocked” line. :)

Web Marketing December 21, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the
book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics
to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is fantastic blog.
A great read. I’ll certainly be back.

Anonymous June 11, 2014 at 5:44 pm

Is there an italicized word in every paragraph in this article?

Larry June 11, 2014 at 7:28 pm

@Anonymous — actually, there’s not. What’s your question? Moreover, what’s your problem, dude (hiding behind the “anonymous” tag)?

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