Dimensions are often thrown around when discussing characters. Maybe you’ve heard this before: “Your protagonist was very one-dimensional.” Or, “your protagonist was flat.” If you’ve only vaguely understood what that criticism meant, I’m here to dispel your confusion in plain language. Let me emphasize that last point, because I think it’s important. Plain language. If you’re like me, you’re dead tired of hearing authors discuss the craft, especially character. The reason you’re tired of hearing it is because every author romanticizes the process, pretending it can only be explained in poetic language and vague metaphors. Breathe life into your characters, we are told, or make them jump off the page. That’s all well and good, and maybe somebody out there really takes something away from that kind of fluff, but that’s not what this post is about. This is about pulling away the skin of the robot and explaining what makes it work at the most basic level.
Characters are essentially made up of three dimensions.
1st dimension – This is what you see on the surface. All that meets the eye, so to speak. For example, if you see a guy walking into a gas station covered in tattoos and wearing a leather jacket, you now understand him in a one dimensional way.
2nd dimension – This is the backstory. It’s the explanation for what you see on the surface. For example, if the biker guy in the above example mentions to you that he’s an accountant but is riding across the country in memory of his brother, who was a hardcore biker before he passed away, then you understand him as a two-dimensional character.
3rd dimension – This is what the character does. For example, if the biker guy tears off his jacket at the end of the ride and throws his helmet into the bushes before calling a cab back home, we see what kind of person he is despite or because of his backstory and appearance.
For some of you, this might be enough to understand a lot more about effective characters than you already knew. For others, you may be wanting a little more.
The First Dimension
Before I get deeper into the first dimension, it’s worth noting that no dimension is more important than the other. It would be like saying that a support pillar is more important than the foundation of a building. Take away either and the building will fall down. However, you can have a foundation without a support pillar, just like you can have a one dimensional character without layering on more dimensions.
Should a character ever be purely one-dimensional? Absolutely. A common mistake is to get carried away by giving every single character a backstory and trying to create a character arc for them. Save that for your protagonist, antagonist, and key supporting characters.
One common mistake in giving first dimension details to a character is to give eccentricities for the sake of eccentricities. For example, you might decide to make your protagonist OCD and describe him organizing his refrigerator by expiration date. Why? Well, because it’s kind of interesting to read about? Maybe it is, but unless you can manage to tie the OCD into your characters 2nd and even 3rd dimension, it will end up feeling clunky and unrewarding. That’s not to say you shouldn’t add quirks and unique flavor to your character, just make sure they are relevant to who your character is.
The Second Dimension
Many writers understand intuitively that a character needs to have a backstory. However, they tend to make a mistake in either over-showing or more rarely under-showing. Also, keep in mind that a flashback is rarely the most effective way to show backstory. There are certain story types that lend themselves to flashbacks, but unless it’s a major part of the story, you’ll be better suited by finding creative and effective ways to weave backstory into your story. Implying backstory, if done well, can be extremely effective as well. For example, a character who masquerades as a hard-ass being seen leaving a dance class or a soup kitchen (cliche, but you get the idea). The previous example ties together the first and second dimension. His masquerade is part of his first-dimension, but the fact that he’s trying to be seen as a tough guy when he’s clearly something more implies a certain level of backstory. This is an example of how you can more effectively layer a character. The first dimension should make a reader crave the second dimension, which should enrich the first dimension. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
The Third Dimension
Satisfying character moments can only come when a strong first dimension and second dimension have been lain. Skilled writers make it clear to readers what is at stake for each character. If we return to the biker example, you can see and even extrapolate so much from just three snapshots of the character. On the surface, he’s a biker. Look a little deeper and he’s actually a loving brother paying respect in a very touching way. But then follow him through his journey and see something perplexing, but not all-together unbelievable. Why did he throw down the helmet and seem to disrespect the memory of his brother after such a long show of devotion? Is he such a principled man that he valued his word more than his brother? Did his brother die on a motorcycle and the man now resents everything about riding, only fulfilling his promise out of respect?
With the proper foundation and support down, the actions of your characters become much, much more interesting. If we knew less about the biker character, his actions wouldn’t invite nearly as much speculation.
In common practice, the third dimension, or your characters actions, will often follow the expectations laid by your first and second dimension for about the first half of the story. If the character is a bad employee who always shows up late and does a terrible job (1st dimension) because he knows his boss stole his girlfriend from him during high school (2nd dimension) then the third dimension is how you show character growth. For much of the story, the character would act resentfully toward the boss – perhaps struggling with a desire to get over it and move on. As an author, you can show his growth when his actions finally confirm who he is, at least temporarily. Maybe he’s called to put his resentment aside when his boss suffers an accident. Does he move in to help, or does he let the man die or suffer? His actions (the third dimension) will define his character. The moment will be all the more powerful if the first and second dimension have been clearly laid out for the reader.
It’s also worth noting that even if your character does save the boss, for example, he can revert back to his old ways while still having shown growth. The third dimension is all about culminating moments. When it really counts, how did your character act, and how did that action reveal who he or she truly is?