Three Dimensions of Character

Your characters are flat. Two-dimensional. Cardboard cutouts.  
How many times have we heard this about our work?
How many times have we thought this about somebody else’s?
How many times have we secretly wondered, “What in the heck is a three-dimensional character, anyway?”
I mean, sure. We know in theory. And we know when we find one. 
It’s a character brought to life. A character that lives and breathes on the page.
But how do we do that?
I just finished reading this book called Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. And he does something I haven’t seen in other craft books.
He actually defines each of the three dimensions that create a three-dimensional character.
The first dimension is anything we can see.
The character’s looks, style choices, quirks, mannerisms, speech patterns, etc. Basically, this is how the character looks and how the character acts. It’s surface stuff. Sometimes it hints at who the character truly is. And sometimes it’s all just a smoke screen. Something to cover up what’s lurking inside.
The second dimension is back story.
The character’s past. Family of origin. Childhood memories. Where he grew up. How he grew up. Disappointments. Failures. Accomplishments. Fears. Inner demons and insecurities. Basically, anything that happened before the story that makes your character who he is today.
The second dimension should have a big impact on the first. 
I mean, think about it. Isn’t that how life goes? 
Our quirks, our mannerisms, our style, the things we say? Aren’t they all shaped by our experiences? Whether we’re breaking away from our past or embracing it doesn’t matter. Either way. It affects how we portray ourselves to the world.
The third dimension is the character’s choices.
This is who the character truly is. 
Brooks writes: 
Only in the third dimension do we actually see through the first-dimension facade and the second-dimension excuses to truly understand a character.
To bring some clarity, I thought it might be fun to study an example.
Let’s look at Ivy.
Ivy is a fashion model.
Her first dimension
beautiful, rail-thin, tall, she wears brand-name clothing and brand-name makeup, her hair and nails are flawless, she’s unabashedly flirtatious, she exudes sex-appeal, she knows how to play coy, she carries herself with confidence and an air of aloofness 
Her second dimension
She is the result of an affair. She was an accident. Her mother was her father’s mistress. Her father has always been ashamed of her. Her mother, who loved her, died when she was 11 and Ivy went to go live with her father and his wife. He treated her like she was invisible. At 14, she moved to New York City with her uncle/agent, who only cared about her for her looks and the money she could make him. And she was introduced to an intoxicating world of parties and men. Inside, Ivy is insecure.
Notice how the second-dimension of character elicits the reader’s empathy. 
This is what the second-dimension is supposed to do. It sheds light on the 1st dimension. 
While these two dimensions add depth to Ivy, we still don’t know who Ivy is. 
Does she make choices that are good for her or bad for her? Does she make choices that are good for others or bad for others? Does she let her past, her emotional scars, define her? Or does she fight against them?
Hence, the importance of the third dimension in shaping actual character.
Brooks writes:
True character emerges, eventually, through a character’s choices when something is at stake…..Who that person really is, at his core, is the stuff that resides at the heart of the third dimension of character.
This reminds me of a famous Dumbledore quote: It’s our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. 
And these choices should arc throughout the story. As the stakes rise and as the character changes.
Let’s Talk: What do you think about these three dimensions? Do you think they work together to create living, breathing characters? How do you ensure you’re creating three-dimensional characters?
*Photo by morganfitzp


Multidimensional Characters

In real life, humans are fascinating creatures filled with contradictions. Nobody (at least nobody I’ve ever met) is ALL kindhearted, or ALL confident, or ALL obnoxious, or ALL positive. So why do writers tend to write one-dimensional characters?

Donald Maas offers this answer:
Many writers create multidimensional characters in their head, but they fail to portray these dimensions on paper.

Dimension Check:
He suggests going through our manuscript and counting the different sides of our characters we show our readers. His prediction? We don’t show nearly as many dimensions as we think.

I did this exercise with my WIP. And guess what? He was right. While the characters in my head are multidimensional, these same characters on paper don’t measure up.

What does Maas recommend?
Increase the number of dimensions in your characters.

Pinpoint your character’s defining quality. Now think of this quality’s opposite. In what ways can you show your character portraying this opposite? Repeat the exercise again with a secondary quality.

My Example:
My character’s dominant impression: devoted widow.

She’s devoted to her deceased husband, to her 4-year old son, to her cafe, to her music, to God, to her friends and family. She’s loyal and dedicated to all of these things.

What is the opposite of devotion? indifference or unfaithfulness

In what way can my heroine show this opposite side of herself?

Maybe at some point in the novel, she’s too exhausted and overwhelmed to care anymore. So she lets some of her commitments slide, like her Bible study, business at her cafe, her music at church, etc.

Maybe at some point in the novel, she commits to something with the hero (who is her antagonist) in order to gain the upper hand and she’d deliberately unfaithful with this particular commitment.

In Conclusion:
I highly recommend this exercise. It sure gets the creative juices percolating and opens up some exciting character possibilities.

Questions to Ponder: What is your defining quality? If you don’t know, ask a spouse, a best friend, a sibling, a parent, etc. What do they say? In what ways do you contradict this quality?removetweetmeme

Character Tags

What is a tag?
It’s a label you slap on your character to make him/her identifiable to your reader.

Tag Categories:
1. Appearance
2. Speech
3. Mannerisms
4. Attitude

Appearance: A tall, broad shouldered man leaves a much different impression than a frail, hunched-over man. Well-dressed vs. sloppy. Manicured fingernails vs. callused palms. Appearance says a lot about your character.

Speech: Does he have an accent? Does she talk fast, without taking any breaths? Does he stutter? Does she use verbose vocabulary or does she stick with monosyllables? How a person talks says a lot about his or her background, level of education, career, and social status. Pay careful attention to the speech tags you give your characters.

Mannerisms: nail-biter, hair twirler, fidgeter, lip licker, eye-batter…the list could go on and on. Be careful to avoid cliche mannerisms. Get creative here. My favorite is by Jill Kemerer, who has this awesome post about a character who picks the same scab on her arm over and over again.

Attitude: AKA Traits. punctual, bitter, energetic, flirtatious, competitive….

The purpose of tags:
1. To distinguish one character from another
2. To characterize

If a woman is flirtatious, show it via tags. Does she bat her eyes at men? Bite her lower lip in order to draw attention to its fullness? Does she touch men on the shoulder or forearm when it’s not necessary? If a man is high-strung, does he pace? Does he mess up his hair when he’s stressed? Is he a chain-smoker who holds his cigarettes with trembling fingers?

That’s basically it about tags. Thus ends my series from Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. Sad, right? I hope they were helpful! I highly recommend the book. It’s wordy, for sure. But chalk-full of insightful information.

Question to Ponder: What tags do you give your characters?removetweetmeme