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02:24 pm: Wright’s Writing Corner: The Three Levels of Character.

Hey all. Haven’t posted a Wednesday writing post in a while. Hoping to get back to it in September when the kids go back to school, but I thought I’d write down some ideas from a conversation I had with a fellow writer one night as we took a walk.

Our discussion was about character and what it meant to be a one, two, or three-dimensional character. Here are a few thoughts:

One-Dimensional Characters— are just that. They have one-dimension to them. The girl with red hair. The angry guy. They are very seldom memorable, because they do not have a second quality to distinguish them from every other character with the same quality.

If the only thing that sets ‘red-haired girl’ apart is her red hair, she is indistinguishable form all other girls with red hair.

One-dimensional characters appear in almost every work, because not all characters need fleshing out. The messenger who brings the news of the king’s death does not need a personality if he’s never to be seen again. Being ‘the messenger’ is just fine.

He could be the messenger with red hair or the messenger who was missing an arm. But he is still a one-dimensional character because he is indistinguishable from other one armed messengers, having no other qualities.

If the character changed their distinguishing characteristic, the reader could not recognize them. If red-haired girl showed up as a blonde, we would never know her.

 

Two-Dimensional Characters—are characters who always act in a predictable way.

She is the fiery redhead. He is the angry guy who apologizes terribly every time he hits someone. They are easily recognizable, because they always act exactly the same.

Two-dimensional characters are not necessarily forgettable. They can be complicated, even delightful. Some are famous. But we know them because they are always the same: the perky girl who always swears, the depressed boy who carries a blanket and sucks his thumb, etc. They never act out of character.

A really good example of beloved, vivid, two-dimensional characters are the Peanuts. They characters on the Peanuts never act out of character. Charlie Brown never wins. Lucy never gives him a break. But they are definite and recognizable and lovable.

If one day Charlie Brown got out of bed, put on a different shirt, acted brave and cheerful, and  won a game, we never recognize him.

 

Three-Dimensional Characters—are characters who come to life.

In particular, they are characters complex enough that we can recognize them even when they act out of character. They are character who have two separate themes to them that are in conflict with each other: such as, for instance, scofflaw rascal and Southern gentleman.

There is a logic to character…an interweave of qualities…that makes it so we can tell when someone is out of character as opposed to breaking character. A three-dimensional character is one who is so well defined that even when he acts out of character, he does not break character…and he is still recognizable as himself in a way that Charlie Brown or Lucy—much as we love them—would not be.

An example that comes to mind is Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. It is a huge surprise when the casual rascal decides to join the army when it becomes clear that the South is losing. It is so different from his normal way of behaving—from his two-dimensional front as a blockade runner who doesn’t care.

And yet, the character is skillfully enough drawn that the reader does not think, “Oh, come on, he would never do that. This is ridiculous. I’m not reading this tripe.”

Why? Because we know that the other string to his ‘scofflaw rascal present’ is his ‘Southern gentleman past’. Under pressure, it is his secondary qualities, his sense of honor, that come to the fore. The action is surprising and yet understandable.

A three-dimensional character can be go anywhere, be thrown into any situation and still be recognizable.

 

So…quick review:

One-dimensional characters never changes.

Two-dimensional characters have a range of behavior but cannot act outside that range.

Three-dimensional characters are recognizable in any situation.

 

At this point, my friend paused on the darkened sidewalk, stroked his beard, and said, “You know. I think I’m a two-dimensional character.”

(I wasn’t going to argue with him…but he’s not. ;)

 

Who are some of your favorite characters of varying dimensions?

Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

Comments

[User Picture]
From:David Marcoe
Date:August 15th, 2012 09:49 pm (UTC)
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1) As a writer, my strength is plotting and back-story, but my weakness is characterization. In particular, capturing a definite sense of personality and motivation have been a hurdle for me. So, how do you go about creating a three-dimensional character?

2) What about change wrought in a character, where the character's core self is fundamentally altered through the events of the story? How do you approach that?

[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 16th, 2012 12:17 am (UTC)
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A post on changes in character sounds tempting. ;-)

I've written a lot about creating three-demensional characters. Here's one:

http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/2009/11/18/wrights-writing-corner-writing-the-breakout-novel-part-two-–-my-favorite-exercise/

Edited at 2012-08-16 12:19 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:August 16th, 2012 12:43 am (UTC)
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The best trick I've found is developing contradictions.

We all contradict ourself because sometimes our sloth beats out our ambition and sometimes vice versa.

My favorite technique for this is described here:
marycatelli.livejournal.com/33079.html
[User Picture]
From:princejvstin
Date:August 16th, 2012 12:02 am (UTC)
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Oliver Twist (written by my relative Charles Dickens) is a great second-dimensional character.

Miles Vorkosigan, from Lois M Bujold, is a fully fleshed three dimensional character, especially given across multiple books.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 16th, 2012 12:20 am (UTC)
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Excellent examples.
[User Picture]
From:saintjoi
Date:August 16th, 2012 03:26 am (UTC)
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The ones that come to mind most quickly (since I've been re-watching the series) are Londo Mollari and G'Kar from the tv series Babylon 5. You think you've got them pegged in the first few episodes: Londo is the lovable pompous rascal, and G'Kar is the charming type that you don't want to turn your back on. But every episode, each one deepens a bit, does something you don't quite expect that reveals another part of the character. By the end of the show, I felt that I would recognize those two (well, most of the characters in the show, actually, but these two in particular) no matter what disguise they wore.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 16th, 2012 03:44 am (UTC)
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Very good examples!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 19th, 2012 02:35 am (UTC)

2.5 Dimensional characters

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I'm fascinated with 2 directional characters that take on a life of their own , or should. Two that jump to mind, Bobba Fett and the Mouth of Sauron.
[User Picture]
From:justjohn
Date:August 16th, 2012 02:32 pm (UTC)

Don't stop there!

(Link)
Four-Dimensional Character -- Fully alive character you recognize as somebody you've known, even when you first meet them.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 16th, 2012 03:20 pm (UTC)

Re: Don't stop there!

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I was thinking that's who the 3-D ones were. LOL

John and I both felt that way about War and Peace...it was like these characters were more vibrant and more real than the people we knew.
[User Picture]
From:justjohn
Date:August 16th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)

Re: Don't stop there!

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I was concentrating more on the time paradox element.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 16th, 2012 04:13 pm (UTC)

Re: Don't stop there!

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Oh! I get it now! LOL ;-)
[User Picture]
From:justjohn
Date:August 18th, 2012 04:39 am (UTC)

Hey, before we let this go ...

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On the 4th-dimensional character, here's something that might be useful:

How about a character that's so well written that the reader knows what she's going to do before the character does?

For instance, this idea hit be as I'm reading Dexter By Design. The foreshadowing is perfect. And as each part comes along that makes me go "Aha! I knew it!" there's that bit of satisfaction.

And it enhances the effects of the actual surprises.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 18th, 2012 05:52 am (UTC)

Re: Hey, before we let this go ...

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I LOVE that kind of thing...anticipation that works out, without being too obvious.

[User Picture]
From:Pierce Oka
Date:August 16th, 2012 08:36 pm (UTC)
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Some of my favorite 3-D characters are members of the supporting cast that you can tell the author put effort into. The two that spring to mind are Gentlemen Johnny Marcone from The Dresden Files (even more so since reading "Even Hand")and Captain Smoker from One Piece. I've had a greater appreciation for the characterization in One Piece particularly recently when the characters started getting body-swapped Freaky Friday style and I was still able to tell who was in whose body without reading the little labels.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 16th, 2012 09:58 pm (UTC)
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Those are both excellent examples. And I agree that the characterization on One Piece is superb!
[User Picture]
From:Pierce Oka
Date:August 17th, 2012 06:43 pm (UTC)
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Another fun character, who probably has too little screen time to be 3-D but has conflicting motivations is the Sontaran nurse from "A Good Man Goes to War"(Doctor Who). Sontarans are cloned to be an honorable soldier race the glory in battle, but this particular one was sentenced by the Doctor to act as a battlefield medic for humans, and his honor compels him to accept the sentence. The conflict is best summed up when the Sontaran has just finished patching up an injured boy and remarks: "May you grow up to be strong and healthy, so that we may we meet again in glorious battle and I may kill you for the glory of Sontar!"
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 17th, 2012 06:46 pm (UTC)
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LOL I haven't seen that episode. Very nice.
[User Picture]
From:kokorognosis
Date:August 19th, 2012 01:22 am (UTC)
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One of the anime franchises I'm very fond, Macross, is known for having pretty rockin' characters, in general. There's a pop star in the newest series (Well, there always is) that initially comes off as a spoiled brat, like pop stars are, but winds up being quite sweet, caring, and selfless by the end of the series. She's stuck with me for the last few years.
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