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

17 thoughts on “Multidimensional Characters

  1. Tabitha Bird

    Oh good way to think about what we show to our readers. I am going to go count how many sides of me I show in my memoir and see if I am making the truest statement of me possible 🙂

  2. Katie Ganshert

    Jessica – did they tell you what it is? I'm curious to know!

    Jody – the workbook is unreal. The book was good, but as far as practical steps to help improve my novel, the workbook is just SO good!

    Your welcome, Eileen!

    Wendy, that's what I thought at first too. It's a good point to consider. Our character's defining quality should, well, define him or her, but not BE him or her. Mother Theresa had to have moments of selfishness, right? 😉

    Weronika – glad to provide some insight! Hope the exercise works out for you.

    Kristen – you're not the only walking contradiction! I'm glad you found this post timely. 🙂

    T. Anne – I hope you feel closer with your charcters today. 🙂

    Erica – my brain will be one giant noodle too! So excited and scared – just like you. 🙂

    Cindy – you will not regret buying this book. I'm just giving you the tip of the iceburg here with my posts. This thing is CHALK full of awesome suggestions/activities to deepen our novels.

    Beth – so glad you checked out my friend's blog. Thank you so much for the prayer. She needs it. She needs it very much. I hope you can be an encourager to your friend!

    Candee – me neither! I can't wait!

    Thanks, Elana. Hope it was helpful!

    Heather…I hear ya. I hesitate to ask my husband….I know he'd be nice and say something kind. But with the snappy way I've been treating him lately, he should define me as grouchy woman.

    I'll bring it, Jill!

    Galen – you crack me up. Hope your character's arc comes along nicely.

  3. Galen Kindley--Author

    Katie wrote: “Nobody (at least nobody I've ever met) is ALL kindhearted, or ALL confident, or ALL obnoxious, or ALL positive.” Now, Katie, you know me—digitally—so, that statement is not true. I’ll let you chose which of the ALLs I fall short on. Grin.

    Fascinating suggestion as an exercise—and useful. I know I’ve got some additional work to do on my main Character, even though the book is “finished” so, this is one I’ll use when working on his arc. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Best Regards, Galen
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  4. Jill Kemerer

    Great advice! Like I said–keep bringing on the Maas!

  5. Heather Sunseri

    I'm not sure I want to know what each family member thinks my defining quality is. I bet I get a different answer from each one. Hmmm. Good exercise. I'll definitely be visiting my characters to make sure they're not one-dimensional.

  6. ElanaJ

    Great exercise, Katie! I'm definitely going to put this one in my file for the next pass. 🙂

  7. Candee Fick

    Thanks for the reminder to dig deeper into our characters. I can't wait to sit in the same room as Donald Maass and soak up more.

    As for me, my family would call me organized. Yet, I've also been known to show up at the grocery store without the list that's still on the fridge.

  8. Beth

    I think as a female writer, it's much easier for me to show the dimensions of my female characters, but for my male characters this is a great exercise!

    I also wanted to thank you for sharing your friend's blog (the one going through the husband's affair). My friend is suffering through the SAME situation, and it has been such a blessing to understand her perspective a little deeper through reading your friend's experience!

  9. Cindy

    Oh, man…I really think I'm going to have to get this book! What a great exercise–thanks for sharing it with us.

  10. Erica Vetsch

    His workshop is going to blow me away, I just know it. I'll be a noodle-brain for the rest of the conference, but wow, it's going to be soooooo cooool.

    And scary.

  11. T. Anne

    That's a great idea! It shows i really need to get to know my characters a little bit better and let that translate onto paper…or computer. 😉

  12. Kristen Torres-Toro @ Write in the Way

    Hey, Katie!

    I'm definitely a walking set of contradictions. Thankfully, it makes most people laugh. My college roommate said that if she didn't love me so much, I'd drive her crazy!!

    This post was so timely for me, as I'm trying to create new characters right now! Thanks for getting me thinking! Have a great day!

  13. Weronika

    I definitely like this exercise–character dimensions are never at the forefront of my mind when I plan or write and I'm going to attempt this once I'm finished with the WiP. Thanks!

  14. Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought

    Interesting. I'll have to think on this. It makes me wonder if as writers we could begin to create contradictions and confuse our readers about the characters if we get "too good" at this. 😀

    I like how Elizabeth George words it in her character prompt sheet, "Psychological maneuvers".

    Mine might be my passion and the way I love with intensity. I contradict this when I'm under spiritual attack and forget who I am in God.
    ~ Wendy

  15. Eileen Astels Watson

    That's a great exercise. I will definitely be doing that. Thanks!

  16. Jody Hedlund

    I just recently read this chapter too! I plowed through his character development chapters as I'm developing my characters for my next book. It was definitely a great way to start adding depth!

  17. Jessica

    Ooh, I'm totally going to ask my family what it is! LOL
    This is a great idea. I hadn't thought of doing this. Maybe I need to break down and buy that book… Hmmmm. 🙂


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