Monday, July 19, 2010

The Three Dimensional Character in Novels

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by C. Patrick Schulze

Listen to a PODCAST of this article.

Much is said about the mythical three dimensional character, yet there's a dearth of information about the concept. Sure, there's an overload of particulars on the subject, but it all seems a bit incomplete. Especially since I've received my manuscript back from the editor and she told me to add dimension to my hero.

So, I set out to find what it is that makes for a three dimensional character.

The wide breath of information on the subject follows this basic outline. One, your character must be believable. Two, your character must have flaws and, three, be relatable to your reader. Three dimensions, right? Though that's correct as far as it goes, I'd come to believe, something's missing from that formula.

Well, I think I've figured out what's missing. It's the levels, the depth, of their personality.

I've come to see it like this. The first dimension is that part of your character the world sees. It is their habits, their mannerisms, their dress, hairstyle and the like. It is those sensory clues he give the world.

The second dimension of your character is his backstory, his dark side, his past. What is it that compels your character to do the things he does? This backstory is what offers understanding of your character's persona, those parts of his life he hides from others.

Why does he hate woman, enjoy over-eating or fret over insignificant details? It's a character's backstory that gives him this part of his personality. It is this second dimension of "why" that draws empathy from your reader. And as we all know, empathy is what draws your reader into and empowers your novel.

The character's third dimension is comprised of his actions, behaviors and outlook on life. It's the reasons he makes the decisions he does. If truth be told, your character's moral fiber is defined by the actions he takes and his actions are defined by his outlook toward the world.

This outlook is the primary difference between your hero and villain. The hero suppresses his desire due to his outlook on life, what he considers right and wrong. In contrast, the villain fails to suppress those same urges as his concept of good and evil differs from the hero's.

It also seems to me these various levels of the three dimensional character need be unique and able to stand on their own. However, they should still coincide or mesh with each other. 
For an example as to how these three dimensions conjoin, imagine a character who exhibits an outward show of honesty. This is his first dimension, his noticeable appearance. He feels this way because his father used to take a belt to his backside when he lied as a child. This is his "why" or the second dimension to his personality. However, he lies to his wife when he has an affair. This is his third dimension, his actions.

The best authors are able to stir these three dimensions together to create a concoction that brews that elusive three dimensional character. In fact, the more I read, the more I'm convinced it is the art of characterization that lies at the heart of storytelling.

In my opinion, it you place more emphasis on your character's true three dimensions, your writing and your novel will rise to a new level.

Now, who among you have ever heard someone say your characters are not three dimensional and what did you do about it?

Until we speak again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the BACK-from-the-editors novel, "Born to be Brothers"


  1. I've never seen it put like this. Excellent! Hope you don't mind if this goes in the Friday round-up, too!


  2. Wow! This post is so helpful and truly articulates what I've been trying to do. I am very excited to be a new follower!

  3. Great post! Yes, plot is still important, but doesn't it make the BIGGEST difference who is put in that situation? It's the characters and their motivations and decisions that drive the story and make it better or worse.

  4. Excellent post! I am in the process of revising my novel and I'm trying to add depth to my characters. This gave me just what I needed to do that. Thank you!

  5. Good morning, Martina. Nice to have you back.

    I'd be pleased if you would link. Thanks so much.


  6. Thanks for your kind words, Saumya, and welcome.

    So glad you found it of use.


  7. I believe you're right, Lisa. I've come to believe it's the characters more than anything.

    Of course, you need effective dialogue and a strong plot, but if your characters don't stand out, the whole thing just doesn't work.

    Thanks for your comment.


  8. Good morning, Jess. I'm delighted to know the article helped in some way.

    Thanks for commenting.