Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Three Dimensional Story (and Characters)

All too often we have felt "that character was so one-dimensional" without being able to go into detail as to why.

We just knew.

Well, here's why:

We all carry within us a strong desire to become involved in another person's life, whether it be a real person or a fictional character. When we relate to those around us, we connect at different levels. The same is true when we read a book or watch a movie. We try to make a connection with the characters on the page or on the screen. So it is important as writers to create someone that the audience can connect with.

Dimension One: Physical 

When I order my weekly burger at the local fast food establishment, I relate only physically with the person taking my order. I make no further connection with them and to me they are a one-dimensional character, the fast food employee. We still see a lot of these characters in movies, TV and books. They are the "stereotypes" that writing teachers tell us to avoid. Despite the constant warnings, they are easily identifiable by the audience so the writer too often succumbs to using "characters" in their stories instead of "people".

Dimension Two: Emotional

I relate with my co-workers at a deeper level. Not only do I interact with them physically but I also expand that interaction into the emotional realm. I like them. They go beyond just being my co-workers; they have names and personalities. But when they leave for another job we no longer interact and they are often replaced with new co-workers. The relationship with the co-worker was clearly not one-dimensional, but it still lacked that something extra that made it easy to move on when they left.

Dimension Three: Spiritual

I am not talking religion here. Not only do I relate with my spouse on a physical and emotional level, there is also that "she is my soul mate" thing that pushes our relationship into the spiritual realm. It is here that the deepest connections between people are made. It is at this level that your story needs to operate.
When your "characters" come in contact with one another (Physical), begin to recognize their individuality and like or hate each other (Emotional) and realize they are destined to be connected (Spiritual) they become "people" in the minds of the audience. And the audience can identify and connect with people.
Writing in all three dimensions does not "show" your audience who the characters are, it let's them "know" who the characters are.

And when the audience identifies with your characters, they can easily boo the villain and cheer the hero, because the audience now has a vested interest in the outcome of the situation (the plot).

Here is a quick example:

One dimensional:

A man strides into the fast food joint and points his gun at the employee at the register, "Give me all the money."

Let me ask you the following questions:
  • Are you upset that he pulled a gun on the employee?  Why?
  • Do you hope he gets the money?  Why?
  • Do you care about the outcome?
Three dimensional:

Robert glanced at the tattered picture in his hand. It showed a happier time before the accident that took the life of his mother. Now, four months later, his sister would join her unless she received an experimental surgery that the insurance company was unwilling to pay for. The nickel-plated revolver felt overly heavy in his pocket as he tugged on the door handle to the isolated Burger Hut on the lonely stretch of highway. A quick glance revealed the only customers were a man and his little boy laughing as they shared a basket of curly fries. They would pose no threat. Robert had no idea, as he clicked back the cocking lever with his thumb and pointed his deadly revolver at the woman behind the counter, he was threatening the wife and mother of the only other people in the restaurant. He fixed his stare on the woman's eyes while she fixed her stare on the revolver. "Give me all the money."

Let me ask you the same questions again:
  • Are you upset that he pulled a gun on the employee?  Why?
  • Do you hope he gets the money?  Why?
  • Do you care about the outcome?
I would wager that you had a stronger reaction to the second telling of the story. There were living breathing people behind the cardboard characters of "armed robber" and "cashier". You might also have observed that I incorporated the Character Trinity model I talked about in a previous post. The Hero, Villain and Companion are all connected, even in this tiny snippet of a story.


  1. A writer friend of mine who's won the won the Governor's General award once told me that if you don't have the room or time to make a character three dimensional, characterize them with a flaw. For instance, if it's a woman, perhaps she walks around with her shirt tucked into her panties. or if it's a man, he walks with a brace on his left knee....

  2. Thanks Vin for the tip to quickly add dimension to a character. Why is she so rushed that she doesn't check (or care) how she looks? How did that guy get a leg brace (depth via history)? These questions, asked internally by the reader, add an extra dimension to the character since there is a history that predates the story being told.