Character Dimensions

Human beings are three-dimensional. Your characters should be, too. This is what makes them compelling. This is what makes us fall in love with them or love to hate them.

I’ve often come across posts online where authors are asking for character quirks. They’ll list a bunch of qualities their character has. “Dorothy is blonde, blue-eyed, and loves to knit. What quirks should she have? I can’t think of any!”

This is the first dimension. What we see on the surface. Maybe Dorothy chews her fingernails. Maybe she collects cats. Maybe she’s a rabid Doctor Who fan who wears her hair in a perm like her favorite character, River Song. This first dimension is a combination of how Dorothy sees herself and how she wants to be seen. Sometimes these things will contradict each other, which takes us to the second dimension. But we’ll get there in a bit. Let’s stick with the first for a moment longer.

The first dimension traits show your reader what is. It’s up to the reader to assign any meaning to it. So what if Dorothy knits sweaters for her cats? If you show the reader why she does this, you’ve just crossed into the (cue music) second dimension.

In the second dimension, you show the reader why Dorothy does what she does. Whether it’s her conscious choice or whether she does something to cover up something else, the second dimension exposes backstory or maybe Dorothy’s hidden agenda. Dorothy may have been a neglected child who never felt warm or cared for, so she knits sweaters for her many cats to give them the care she never received. Maybe. It’s a thought.

The third dimension takes all the first dimension choices and subordinates them to more important choices and behaviors that must be made when greater things are at stake. What will Dorothy choose when faced with such a dilemma? Since she only trusts her cats, can she trust another person? What if it were a life or death situation? Could she risk her life to save that other person, setting aside her distrust? The third dimension will let us know. These third dimension choices are good for showing character growth. Just like there’s a story arc, characters have an arc of their own. Do they grow and change? Is it for better or for worse? Can Dorothy grow as a person and trust again? Will she run back to her cats instead? Each of these dimensions lets the reader see the character from three different perspectives, even though they may not realize it, since it should be wrapped neatly in the story.

Now that you understand the three dimensions, let’s see what fun you can have with it. The first dimension may be a sham. Maybe it’s all an act. Maybe Dorothy puts on this mask because it makes her feel safe or it allows her to hide her true self. If you go with this approach, it is crucial that you show her true colors at some point or the reader will never know.

Look at your own choices in life. Every morning when you get dressed, you’re making first dimension choices. You can watch people around you and pick out first dimension behavior. This is great practice and research for writing.

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