We know them when we see them. We all want to create them. But what exactly distinguishes a three-dimensional character from that other kind? What exactly does “three-dimensional” mean and how do we render it on a two-dimensional page?
Three-Dimensional Characters: What are they?
Honestly, I had a hard time finding (as in, “I didn’t find”) a quotable definition of what three-dimensional characters are, let alone a usable definition. Most of the craft masters define three-dimensional characters as being “well-rounded” or those that “jump off the page.”
Sounds good, but it’s not much guidance in terms of how to create three-dimensional characters.
Fortunately, the craft masters are a little clearer about how to create three-dimensional characters than they are about defining them.
Okay then, so what are the three dimensions?
Right. So the craft masters don’t exactly agree on the dimensions.
But don’t let this worry you! This is great news. It means there’s more than one way to craft a three-dimensional character.
Below are three methods for creating three-dimensional characters. They all share a couple things in common, namely backstory and physical description. But each also offers something unique.
Here we go!
METHOD #1: The character’s Physiological, Sociological, and Psychological Aspects
This method comes from James N. Frey, quoting Lajos Egri (who may or may not be the guy who started the concept).
The first dimension: Physiological
“To develop a fully rounded character, you must understand the character’s physiology completely.” “The physiological dimension of a character includes a character’s height, weight, age, sex, race, health, and so on.”
This dimension is important because, “Society shapes our character based on our appearance, size, sex, build, skin color, scars, deformities, abnormalities, allergies, posture, bearing, lilt in the voice, sweetness of breath, tendency to sweat, nervous ticks and gestures, and so on.”
The second dimension: Sociological
“The second of Egri’s dimensions of character is the sociological.” This includes the character’s social class, neighborhood, schools attended, friends, politics, religious affiliations, occupation, hobbies, parents’ attitudes about money, success, sex, freedom, discipline, etc.
“To understand a character completely you must be able to trace the source of his traits to their roots.” “Unless the novelist understands the dynamics of the character’s development, the character’s motivations cannot be fully understood. It is the character’s motivations that produce the conflicts and generate the narrative tension . . .”
The third dimension: Psychological
“The psychological, Egri’s third dimension of character, is the product of the physiological and the sociological dimensions. Within the psychological dimension we find phobias and manias, complexes, fears, inhibitions, patterns of guilt and longing, fantasies and so on. The psychological dimension includes such things as IQ, aptitudes, special abilities, soundness of reasoning, habits, irritability, sensibility, talents, and the like.” And also things like frustrations, chief disappointments, temperament, and attitude toward life.
METHOD #2: The Character’s Surface Appearance, Backstory, and Meaningful Choices
This way comes from Larry Brooks. He tends to agree with Frey/Egri about the first two dimensions, but to create Brooks’s third dimension, you have to put the character in motion.
First Dimension: Surface Traits, Quirks, and Habits
“Think of this as the exterior landscape of your characters. Their personality,” and “the way a character looks and acts.”
“In the first dimension of character . . . what you show the reader about your character simply exists. You leave it to the reader to assign meaning.” In other words, readers may think they know what these surface dimension aspects mean, but there’s often more to the story (revealed by the second and third dimension).
Second Dimension: Backstory and Inner Demons
“[T]he second you do show the reader what’s behind these first-dimension tidbits of characterization, you’ve just crossed over into the second dimension.”
“In the second dimension of character, the reader learns the reason for choices and behaviors.” It “explains why you see what you see in the first dimension.”
“In the second-dimension realm we get a glimpse, maybe even a clear look, at the inner landscape of a character,” “the backstory, agenda, and meaning behind those first-dimension issues of characterization.” This can include “[w]here the character came from, the scars and memories and dashed dreams that have left him with resentments, fears, habits, weaknesses, and inclinations that connect to why he is as he appears to be.”
“[T]he second dimension is the real stuff of storytelling, because it sows the seeds of reader empathy.”
Third Dimension: Action, Behavior, and Worldview
“Who [the character] really is, at his core, is the stuff that resides at the heart of the third dimension of character. In a pinch, when it counts, when there are consequences, which character traits will emerge?”
“In other words, his true character emerges, eventually, through his choices when there is something at stake.”
“Only in the third dimension do we actually see through the first-dimension facade and trappings and the second-dimension excuses to truly understand a character . . .”
METHOD #3: The Character’s Past, Present, and Future
Way #3 comes from Karen S. Wiesner. She says, “Each major character in a book needs
- a present self (the person she is in the here and now of the active story),
- a past self (who this individual was before), and
- a future self (who she’ll be in the future, refined and shaped by current situations, conflicts, other characters, and her settings).”
She recommends filling out the follow character sketch for every major character three times, once each for their past, present, and future selves:
- Character Role(s) (hero, antag, fool, love interest, etc.):
- Physical Description:
- Personality Traits:
- Other Important Family:
- Romantic Interests:
- Skill Set:
- Education (formal and otherwise):
- Internal Conflict:
- External Conflict:
“Remember, present is the here and now, the current time of the story; past is backstory that directly impacts what happens in the here and now; and future is the hint of hope and/or dread about where the character is and might be going, and where she may or may not end up” at the end of the story.
Note that the future dimension is one way to create tension. “Whispers of the best and worst that could happen are the very things that keep the reader engaged in the story. Don’t underestimate the importance of including this in each and every scene,” thereby “allowing readers something to either anticipate and/or dread in terms of where the character and story are going.”
And there you have it: Three ways to make your character three-dimensional. As you can see, they all overlap (as I said, they all include a physical description and backstory), but each also offers something the others don’t . . .
. . . are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Yeah! Use all three ways! Use all three ways to give a character:
- psychological depth, courtesy of Mr. Frey/Egri
- defining choices and actions, especially when the stakes are high, thanks to Mr. Brooks, and
- an intriguing future to anticipate or dread, as suggested by Ms. Wiesner.
If you do this, your character’s going to be so three-dimensional, he’ll be practically fifth-dimensional!
Top Books on Creating Three-Dimensional Characters
The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you. In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!
Well, that’s it for me
What about you? What sorts of Designing Principles have you seen used–or have developed yourself? Tell us in the comments!
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We’ll take a look at how Stephen King created three-dimensional characters in The Shining.* See you next week!