Creating deep characters is always a tough job. Many beginner writers receive the common note of “one-dimensional” characters. Every guru or blog always talks about the need for multi-dimensionality. But the question always stands, what do dimensions mean regarding a character? and more importantly, how can it help writing a better story.
First, let’s start with two of the more common definitions I came across. The first was defined by Robert Mckee. He describes a dimension as two contradicting characteristics that pull the character’s behaviour. A more visual view of a character’s dimension according to him looks like that:
The second definition comes from John Truby in his book The Anatomy of Story. He describes a dimension in the form of a flaw. A character starts the journey with flaws (psychological, ethical, etc.), and each flaw gives more depth (more dimensions). His definition can be seen as follows:
Looking at the two images, a similarity starts to show but lets first look at our own definition of dimensions. To do so, let’s utilize a very ancient story:
A knight goes on a quest to save the princess from an evil kidnapper.
Currently, our protagonist knight is zero-dimensional. We could easily change ‘knight’ with almost anything else — human or not. The knight’s goal is clear (“save the princess”), but the character is bland.
The first thing to do is to add some internal drive to save the princess. It can be pride, loyalty, love or just to prove something, but this is the first thing in making the knight an actual character rather than an automaton. under this drive lies the first dimension, either follow the drive towards your goal or don’t.
Let’s say out knight is a loyal guard and follows the king’s order. His internal characterization can be seen as follows:
Before we dive into the next dimension, a small clarification is required. Most sources I ran into don’t accept 2-dimensions, it’s either 1-dimension vs. 3-dimension or one-dimensional vs. multi-dimensional. Nevertheless, it’s much easier to explain multiple dimensions with just 2 so I’ll use it here.
Back to our knight. We know the knight is loyal, but is it enough? The story will follow the knight pursuing the king’s order. The only interesting thing is if the king will change his mind, but then it makes sense our loyal knight will just abandon the princess. There needs to be another internal drive that works alongside the knight’s loyalty.
Let’s go back to McKee’s and Turby’s definition. According to McKee, what’s missing is a contradicting characteristic, a compassionate loyal knight has a lot of potential for misgivings. Turby says the same thing, a greedy knight has a great story with a greater evolution.
Beneath both of their solutions is another internal force that affects the knight’s decision. Calling it a flaw just means the protagonist will change, calling it contradicting just means the event compels to chose one side. It’s the story itself that crushes those two forces into a conflict.
Let’s say out loyal knight is also the princess’ partner. Saving the love of your life is definitely a strong drive. Now comes the story and crushes it against each other. What if the princess rebels against her father, will the knight bring her back or rebel too? Now, the depth of the knight starts to show.
With only 2 dimensions we can see the story (and probably the theme) growing on. Our knight stands before the big question “reliability vs. love”. But is it enough?
With the depth of the character starts to show, we add another dimension that will complement the big conflict of the first 2 dimensions. Our knight is already tangled with what is more important, being true to your word and being true to your love. Now it’s time to add the social aspect of it, the knight also wants to be glorified and respected.
Now there is more room for the knight’s conflict: What if joining the rebel princess will cause a lot of disrespect? and what if it won’t? Each dramatic situation (beat) can compel the knight to choose between two drives, revealing what the knight really believes to be important.
Now comes the question, why not add a fourth and fifth dimension? We know that our knight is much deeper than three abstract dimensions. She can also be conflicted over her sexuality, her trust in the king, in a monarchy and so much more. But the answer is simple, you just don’t have the time.
In a 110 pages script (around 40 beats), there is not enough room to create more than 3 dimensions, and that’s why I think the name stuck. It’s not always true, and it’s possible to see 4-dimensions or 2-dimensions which fit exactly, but generally speaking, 3 is the magic number for features.
The same doesn’t apply to television. A full season is long enough to have multiple dimensions for every character. Each episode can showcase a different aspect of the character and show a much deeper depth over time.
Creating Deep Characters
After we understand how multi-dimensional characters work, it’s important to see how it applies to writing an actual script. Personally, I use it during my outlining process, but it’s relevant whenever you want to tackle the way your character is perceived in the script.
After the basic characterization process, when the protagonist’s childhood pet name is known, it’s time to point out the dimensions that are most relevant to the story. when these dimensions are known, it’s time to look at the beats and see what they bring out. The introduction beats will show the current state: what drives the protagonist on each dimension. The following beats will bring obstacles that make two or more drives contradict.
Usually, the protagonist will go threw some sort of change. A greedy thief will learn the value of friendship and revert from his old self, a loyal knight will choose love over her job and become a rebel. This change will shift the protagonists’ drive from one side of the dimension to the other. Eventually, in the climax, the protagonist will be compelled to make the final decision and the resolution will show if it was good, bad or for the audience to decide.
The protagonist’s dimensions are also relevant for the rest of the cast. Friends will pull the hero to the “good” endpoint, antagonists will pull the hero to the other side. In Civil War types of films, the two protagonists will always push to the opposite directions, thus becoming each other’s antagonist.
This is my perspective on how to understand the depth of characters. I refined McKee’s and Turby’s lessons into a technique that works for me, and now I share it with you. As in any lesson, take what will make you become a better writer and keep on writing.