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.

Organization is the Key

You’ll hear a lot about writing by the seat of your pants, but the truth is, every writer needs some form of organization. Some people thrive with outlines, character sketches, and so on. Others don’t. But even if writing detailed character descriptions and letters from your character to you, the author, doesn’t appeal to you, you need a way to keep track of these things.

You certainly don’t want Cindy to have blue eyes on page 45 and brown on page 231. Believe me, it’s happened. There are also moment to moment changes to deal with, such as what Cindy is wearing when the scene begins and when and if that changes. You need to know how much attention Cindy pays to her appearance… while it may not be discussed directly in the story, it affects her attitude. The reader may not realize exactly what is bothering him when the usual fastidious Cindy suddenly doesn’t care that she has axle grease on her skirt. Unless her circumstances are so dire in that moment, it will bother her… and it may even be a momentary flash of agitation even if her situation is extreme.

These details are extremely important for you to keep in mind, and the only way to know for sure is to be organized. Searching back through your manuscript is not only frustrating, but a huge waste of time you could be writing.

It’s also important to keep in mind when the story is set to have a plot point. These are those moments that are life-changing for your characters. Frank is set in his ways and doesn’t want to step up to deal with the situation, but something happens that makes him do it anyway. This is one of those moments. It needs to happen at the right time, and once it does, he may wish he can go back to his complacency, but he can’t actually do it. Having Frank get complacent again after he’s decided to act is inconsistent. While we do want to make our characters seem real, story structure dictates that once a character has decided to act, he must. That’s not to say there aren’t obstacles in his way… there should be. Which gives you something else to keep track of.

We’ve been watching Burn Notice over the past couple months. The storyline has Michael and his friends trying to get out of Miami. Every way they turned, there were more obstacles. Yes, Character X could get them what they needed, but only if they were willing to deal with Character Y. Once Character Y was dealt with, which led to more problems, Character Z appeared with yet another obstacle. You can bet the show’s writers have to keep careful tabs on who does what and when, so if they resurface at a later date, they remain consistent.

So find a system that works for you. You need to know who and what is happening at any given moment so you can keep up the story.

Torture Your Characters

While you don’t have to be a member of the Spanish Inquisition, it is your job, as an author, to torture your characters. Of course, torture can take many forms. You don’t have to tie your characters to the rack or have them drawn and quartered. But as a writer, you do have to complicate their lives.

Without complications, a story is boring. Who wants to read about someone going out for a cup of coffee and then go home? No one. Not unless something happens while they’re having coffee. Maybe an old flame shows up that your main character never wanted to see again. Already your main character is on edge. The old flame wants to renew their connection, but your main character has a terribly jealous spouse. Instant conflict! Or maybe, your main character just sits down at a table with their favorite espresso when a bomb goes off outside the coffee shop. Glass flies everywhere, and people are hurt, screaming, and possibly dead. What does your main character do? How does s/he react?

Having said all that, there is a caveat I’d like to put in place. When it comes to torturing your characters, don’t torture them for torture’s sake. While that complicates their lives, it doesn’t further your story. Make sure that the complications you throw at them either reveals part of their character or helps the story move forward. If the bomb happens out of nowhere in a romance and is never brought up again, having only made the main character’s cup of coffee more difficult, don’t put it in. However, if the bomb is part of the story line of your thriller, and it was set by the villain in an attempt to kill your main character, or maybe how your character reacts in helping the injured parties leads them to resolve some issues they’ve been having trouble with, cool.

Another thing to keep in mind is that torturing your characters can be hard on you, too. It can be difficult to keep putting your hero in harm’s way or breaking their heart. The writer must harden their heart a bit, while still keeping the door open to the experience their characters are going through so they can write it effectively. The other extreme is when you keep throwing one thing after another at your characters until your readers begin to think that the characters should just drop dead from stress. There is a balance to maintain. Sure, things always escalate as you approach the climax of your story, but remember to give your characters a little respite now and then as the story goes on. These scenes give your readers a chance to rest and catch their breath, too.