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Three Dimensional Characters

February 6th, 2008

I like reading stories about people and the social dynamics of them. Pretty much all of my favorite books are not about giant robots, big explosions or other ultimately superficial concepts, but the ones that give an uncensored and extremely intimate look into the lives of the characters. My writing in turn reflects a lot of what I like to read… maybe not to the best of my ability, but I’m working on it.

Because writing a realistic and honest story is paramount for me, it is very important to learn the ideas behind what exactly makes for good writing. Last night I got into a conversation with my friends Jimmy and Dave, who are two of my closest allies when it comes to advice on Moose River. We got into a good discussion about what makes for good writing, as well as what about Moose River that they enjoyed a lot. A lot of what we discussed has already made it onto the currently extensive Complete List of Writing Offenses, Incomplete. What isn’t on the list (yet) is something new: the “dimensionality of characters.” I suggested that there were three kinds of characters and how to write them, and that good writers are capable of creating three dimensional characters. Here’s what we worked out.

A one dimensional character:
* is essentially a robot; they have a single purpose and are very predictable. They merely emulate human behavior, as opposed to actually live as a human. There is a clear distinction between those two.
* is a character where, if you got into a conversation with them, you wouldn’t get much out of them beyond information of their single purpose.
* isn’t an actual character, but more like a being meant to fulfill a specific role. That is to say, the character’s only identifier is that of their role.
* possesses an inability to learn anything new and/or an inability to break out of their role. If they lose that single purpose or fall out of their role, then they become lost, almost useless.
* is nothing more than what is revealed at face value. They have no secrets or private lives (apart from superficial ones) and have done nothing that has not been observed by the public. They might even possess an unwillingness to do something if no one is looking.
* loves their creator.
—- Superman, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are probably the best known one dimensional character. Superman’s sole purpose is “to get Lex Luthor and save the world!”. Luke Skywalker’s role is that of “the hero”. Obi-Wan Kenobi is likewise “the old mentor”. These characters were created and written to fit a single goal in mind: to be a tool. They are not humans, but creatures with a very finite set of goals, ideas and belief.

A two dimensional character:
* is really just a one dimensional character with a much fuller, yet still finite, set of beliefs and goals.
—- A writer can take a one dimensional character and just pad up their back story to make a two dimensional character. But the flaws of the one dimensional character are still apparent with the two dimensional character. They may have more than one purpose, but they are still limited to them. They may have multiple roles, but are still bounded by them. Should that character be placed outside if their large-yet-still-finite realm, they become just as lost and useless as the one dimensional character in the same situation. And maybe a two dimensional character has a secret that a one dimensional character doesn’t, but that secret is tied into their role and serves no purpose beyond that (for example, a murderer who is in hiding).

A three dimensional character:
* will always has something new to say. Even if you get inside their head, there is never a drought of information.
* has no role. They don’t even play the role of themselves much, as they can break out of it and try something new. Their identifier is not their job or the clicheic roles of “the hero”, “the mentor” or even “a character in this story”; three dimensional characters are their own identifier. If the character does in fact play a role, the character themselves chose to be it, and it wasn’t something that was unwittingly imposed upon them.
* are not at all predictable. The writer might not know how the character will react. Maybe even the character themself won’t know how they’ll react.
* do not become lost or useless when outside of their realm. Maybe even the best of the character comes out in these situations. It’s the exact opposite of what happens to one and two dimensional characters.
* possess secrets and are more than they reveal to the public, in private, or even to themselves.
* possess the ability to question the purpose the writer gives them, and maybe even chooses to break free from that purpose to seek out something new.
* questions, even hates their creator.
—- I think the best writers create these three dimensional characters. I can name very few stories that have a cast of three dimensional characters. I can name even less web comics which has three dimensional characters.

The dimensionality of characters can also be applied to stories as well. One dimensional stories are like one dimensional characters: the story is predictable, serves only one purpose and doesn’t expand upon much outside its boundaries. A three dimensional story is like a three dimensional character: it has multiple purposes or even lacks a role for it to fulfill and is not at all predictable. Sometimes too we can have X dimensional characters in a Y dimensional story. The movie Dark City is a great example of a once-one/two dimensional character breaking out of his role and becomes a third dimensional character while the entire town is still stuck in their one/two dimensional roles.

Creating three dimensional characters within a three dimensional story is something I’m striving for as a writer. Admittedly a lot of my characters in Moose River may seem more two dimensional than three dimension, but I’m working on that. I honestly never intended for Moose River to attain any level of writing perfection, it is only meant to be a foundation for me to work out these kinds of concept so that I can apply them to future works.

Furthermore, while I am critical of one and two dimensional characters and stories, it doesn’t mean no one should be allowed to write them. I’m a large proponent of legitimacy gained through writer’s intent. That is to say, if you write what you want to write however it is you want to write it, then that’s a legitimate enough of a reason for your work to exist…. regardless of the fact that you may just want to write a simple story with simple stock characters. If anything, at least if you can admit that you’re writing a one dimensional story, then that’s good enough.

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Moose River
by Philippe Van Lieu
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