Fiction Writing Rule #3: Create Dimensional Characters

A story isn’t a story without characters. Much like reality, it doesn’t matter how small a person appears because their actions and personality can cause an explosion.

Throughout literature there are stunning examples of deep, multifaceted characters, without which stories would be drab and boring. Take, for example, characters like Sherlock Homes and John Watson whose depth rival that of some real life individuals.

In continuation of our Fiction Writing Series, our next topic of discussion is how to create dimensional characters.

Think for a moment about your all-time favorite fictional character.

Now imagine this character being two dimensional. But wait! What does it mean to be a 2D versus 3D character?

The 2D vs. 3D Character

According to ChangingMinds.org, two-dimensional characters are simple and unexplained. They fit neatly into a story to serve a specific purpose, have no history, and are often predictable and logical, even non-social. Essentially, they are the perfect fill in for a particular scene or plot progression.

In contrast, three-dimensional characters are believable and credible. They have a back story and a unique past. They can be irrational, quirky, social, independent, dark – human. They have depth, and they contribute to the story’s reality.

You might compare the difference between two and three-dimensional characters to the difference between a cake with and without frosting.

A plain yellow cake fresh from the oven is a two-dimensional character; remotely appealing and lacking in flavor. The same cake frosted and sporting a berry garnish is a three-dimensional character; eye catching and packed with flavor. Which would you prefer?

Three-Dimensional Characters Are a Must

A story lacking in three-dimensional characters will fall flat. It won’t hold the reader’s attention, and in the self-publishing world this can quickly lead to bad e-book reviews.

When a story falls flat – for whatever reason – and readers start pointing it out in public forum, a slippery slope forms.

Today’s critics are individual buyers – readers – and they can rapidly trash your reputation and singlehandedly kill your sales like a trained assassin just by writing and publishing a negative review.

Bad reviews can stem from a number of things, including an unappealing plot, predictable story progression, a manuscript littered with grammatical and formatting errors, shallow characters, etc.

The last thing you want is a reader to call your protagonist one (or two) dimensional. And if you’re submitting your work to an agent or publisher, you definitely don’t want to hear this comment from them!

How to Create 3D Characters

Creating a multi-dimensional character boils down to playing Dr. Frankenstein and giving them the spark of life. The reader should find them so human that they root for or against your character more than a real flesh and blood person.

You can create 3D characters in five steps:

Step 1: People Watch

Real life unfolds in 3D. Therefore, one of the best ways to ignite the creation of multi-dimensional characters is to people watch and take notes. In doing so you will quickly discover what Kristen Lamb discusses on her blog: every strength has a weakness and vice versa.

For example, a loyal person is honorable and noble, but they are also naïve. A shy person is often misunderstood as snobbish, but they are also some of the most caring and loyal people you’ll ever meet.

Studying people and incorporating your observations into your characters will add depth.

Step 2: Create Backstories

Writing is hard work, and a good portion of that work goes into birthing multi-dimensional characters.

I recently dove into the depths of one of the latest films at the box office, Crimson Peak. In doing so I ran across this fantastic interview in which the story’s mastermind, Guillermo del Toro, sits down with the film’s three primary actors to discuss its depth. Beware, this is just under a 50 minute video, but the discussion is (in my opinion) a wonderful glimpse into how to make dimensional characters:

Notice the lengths Guillermo goes to in creating backstories for his characters. Each of the actors was given an entire backstory for their character – a story for their eyes only. Each backstory told their character’s individual story up to the events of Crimson Peak, revealing their inner demons and angels.

The key to infusing any story with multi-dimensional characters lies in taking the time to create backstories. In these tales you become intimately familiar with your cast, from their motivations to their strengths and weaknesses. The result is an infusion of richness and a sense of depth.

Step 3: Allow For Evolution

No person stays exactly the same. We all grow and evolve based on our life experiences. Likewise, the characters in your stories should also grow and evolve.

Avoid limiting them to a certain set of behaviors. Instead, grant them moments of out of character acts, just like how you or I can act out of character in a given situation. Allow for change. Let events shape your characters, molding them from the person of the past to that of the future.

Step 4: Keep Some Secrets

House says it best: “It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what.”

Let your character keep some secrets. We all have deep and sometimes dark secrets that we hide from the world. We all present our best selves to the world, saving the person who truly are for hidden moments. Allow this same element of humanity to live within your characters.

Step 5: Clear Focus

As your write your story, you will need to determine which characters deserve to be 3D versus which can be fleeting 2D moments. For example, readers don’t need to know the life story of the pizza deliver guy, but they do need a dimensional hero, villain, and cast of major players. This does not mean the pizza guy cannot later become a 3D character in an epic plot twist, but that is a development you can focus on later.

Three dimensional characters are at the heart of a created reality. If you take the time to craft them well, you will be on your way to creating a great story readers will eat up.

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