Somewhere along the writing road you’ve surely read a critic describe a protagonist in a story as one dimensional. But what are they?
What’s that extra dimension about, anyhow? What does it even mean?
The first dimension of character – surface traits, quirks and habits.
Think of this as the exterior landscape of your character- their personality.
Peripheral characters in our stories are usually one-dimensional, as they should be. In fact, it’s a mistake to delve too deeply into peripheral characters merely for the sake of adding depth. We really don’t need to know what it was about the pizza delivery guy’s childhood that made him take up food service as a career. That said, even your peripheral characters, if given stereotypical quirks and tics, come off as cliché. Because when quirks are obvious attempts to imbue the character with greater depth, but that depth is otherwise lacking… this is the quintessential one- dimensional character that agent will use as rationale for rejecting your story.
The second dimension of character – backstory and inner demons.
In this realm we see the inner landscape of the character, regardless of how you’ve dressed them up with personality on the exterior.
Where they came from, the scars and memories and dashed dreams that have left them with resentments, their fears, habits, weaknesses and inclinations that connect to why they are as they appear to be.
Even when the quirks are a smokescreen.
The third dimension of character – action, behavior and world view.
A hero takes a stand, takes risks, makes decisions, dives in and executes.
A villain rationalizes behavior and is insensitive to, or refuses to accept responsibility for, the associated costs and violations of accepted social standards.
Character – in this sense defined as moral substance, or lack thereof – is defined not by backstory or inner demons, but by decisions and behaviors.
The Art of Integrating the Three Dimensions of Character
Using this example, it is clear that the first two dimensions may or may not dictate the third. These are your tools as an author, layer by layer, to create the most compelling, complex, frightening, endearing and empathetic character that you can.
Too many writers settle for the first dimension only.
Even more writers focus on the second dimension to the exclusion of the third.
Even more fail to integrate these realms convincingly and compellingly.
That’s the art of storytelling. And there’s no manual for it beyond a grasp of these fundamental principles.