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


28 thoughts on “Three Dimensions of Character

  1. kara

    Graet post! I love how there are three points–that makes it easy. I'm bookmarking this one. 🙂

  2. MGalloway

    Nice summary!

    I would add that this technique can be applied to most characters in a book…not just the main one. That way instead of a three-dimensional character roving around in a world full of cardboard cutouts, it's closer to real life.

  3. PW.Creighton

    Very nice break down Katie. While we look at these elements as dimensions I still feel that it is more powerful to actually think in terms of psychology. While that's essentially what this 'dimensional' approach is doing it's still quite superficial. Developing a full psychological profile, a persona, everything that the character says or does becomes believable because you have created a person, not just a character. I feel that a fully developed psychology will always be stronger than targeting a few basic ideas to create a character.

  4. Jeanette Levellie

    This analysis makes a lot of sense.

    Would motive be part of the second dimension or the third?

    A character, like a real person, can make poor choices, then turn around later in life and make quality choices.

    But you know that.

  5. Sarah Forgrave

    Great post, Katie! And one of my heroines is named Ivy, so I started reading your example and thought, "Ivy! That's my Ivy!" Then I read the second word and realized it wasn't my Ivy…It was yours. 🙂

  6. candidkerry

    Hi Katie,

    Thank you for this helpful post! What a clear, understandable way to break down character dimensions.

    I think there's a writer instinct that – with practice – leads us to build naturally off all three dimensions. But Brooks' concrete description of character dimensions is great reference info for crosschecking our writing.

    I will definitely check out Story Engineering! Thanks. 🙂

  7. Pepper

    Fabulous info here, Katie.
    And I linked it to the Alley 🙂

    I love how Larry Brooks broke those elements down into understandable concepts.

  8. Jill

    I think you have to understand their basic fears/motivations/desires. All else springs from these, even when they deviate from their fears or desires when making choices.

  9. Sonia G Medeiros

    I love Story Engineering! It really gave me insight into my character. I'm working through each dimension and making sure my character has all three. She tries to be invisible, covers herself up, avoids attracting notice. She's quiet and reserved. Inside, she's in denial about resenting her family's expectations for her and in denial about hating herself for not living up to those expectations.

  10. Gina Blechman

    So true. Usually when you are trying to find out why a story hasn't worked the way you wanted, it's because one or more of those dimensions doesn't match up with the others. Once you perfect all of them, you know you've got a great story. Thanks for reminding me. 🙂

    <3 Gina Blechman

  11. Stephsco

    Those are great points to work with for all characters, even supporting ones. You might not focus on a side character but in order for them to be engaging, there should be depth there as well. I think I tend to focus on the main character and maybe the first 2 demensions of a supporting character, but not the 3rd. It would be a good way to show conflict too, if two chracter's have a decision not in tune w/ each other, and each decision is based on their own character.

    Thanks for helping me brainstorm!

  12. Julie Musil

    I absolutely love this! I've never heard it described this way, but it makes total sense. Thanks!

  13. Jill Kemerer

    What an interesting way to break it down! I haven't heard this before. Thanks! I'm going to order Story Engineering this afternoon!

  14. Melissa Smith

    Thanks for this post. I definitely need to work on making my characters 3 dimensionnal. I have Story Engineering, but I haven't sat down to read it yet. I will soon.

  15. Tana Adams

    Wow I'm taking notes! And don't do what I did, add a dimension at a time one book after another. All three would be helpful first time around. 😉

  16. Jeanne T

    Great article, Katie! The way you describe the three dimensions is helpful, and illustrating them with Ivy makes clear how the dimensions interact with one another. I have used Susan May Warren's Book Buddy to help me develop my characters, but I think I need to read that book too. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Jaime Wright

    Great article! I try to get 3 dimensions to my characters – much in the way you described. I usually throw in a shot of espresso, though 😉

  18. Patti

    Such a great post, and such a succinct way to describe character dimensions.

  19. Jessica R. Patch

    Excellent, insightful, clear take on 3 dimensions and I need this book too!

    I love how you break things down and make them easy, Katie. Must be the teacher in you!

  20. Lacie Nezbeth

    It's nice to have a "formula". I need to get that book!

  21. Wendy Paine Miller

    Tweeting this when I'm done writing my comment.

    Great take on the three dimensions. I'm reading a book right now that does characters right. I'll tell you more about it. Going to post it to Goodreads here soon. I'm bouncing all over the networks today, aren't I?

    ~ Wendy

  22. Christine Danek

    Thanks for the informative post. This is extremely helpful and I would agree that the depth of the character is very important. Getting that depth can be difficult. I will also check out that book.

  23. Janice

    I read Larry's book last month, and it is one of the best craft books I’ve ever read, and I've read a lot. I approach my writing from a very different angle now.

    Great post, Katie.

  24. Heather Sunseri

    I need that book!! I often struggle with characterization. But I so love when I recognize a character that comes to life on the page and the author who pulls it off so well.

  25. Writer Pat Newcombe

    Good blog post. I totally agree with your views about dimensions. I think I actually try to do that instinctively but it is nice to have someone pinpoint and explain it so well.

  26. clarekirkpatrick

    This is really helpful! Thank you 🙂

  27. Laura Pauling

    I def. agree. I also think the details in the story world help with character dimension too.

  28. Sally Hepworth

    I love being the first to comment. And the last. But I digress.

    Thanks so much for this post, Katie. The Ivy example really demonstrates your point and I think her third dimension would come into play when we see whether she decides to live a life of fidelity or follow in her parents' footsteps.

    Now, I need to show my third dimension by choosing to get back to my manuscript.


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