Most of the characters in fiction are one dimensional. The avuncular shopkeeper is always avuncular. The prick boss is always a prick. The grumpy cabbie is always grumpy. But not the main character. They must be three dimensional. How do you make it so? First, consider two dimensional characters.
Two Dimensional Characters
Characters that get a lot of time in a story but aren’t central can be two dimensional. For example, the ruthless mob boss who is a loving husband and father. Or, the cheerful waitress who spends her off hours bemoaning lost loves and sitting by the window drinking.
You can see how both examples might play out in a story. The ruthless mob boss could be a force for good when his parental instincts cause him to intervene to save a child. The seemingly happy waitress may sacrifice herself in order to stop a mass murderer about to open fire on her customers.
Where does the third dimension come into play?
Three Dimensional Characters
Three dimensional characters don’t just play multiple roles in life. Even if they put on the personalities of workaholic, stern parent, and stand-up comedian, that’s still two dimensional. The real third dimension is change over time.
Many great books have been written with main characters that do not change. It can be taken as a rule of life that most people never change. That’s why publishers will love you if you can show character change. How can it be done?
Change Due to the Stages of Life
Some stories take place over a long period of time and are able to show character changes because of the stages of life. People change as they go through these stages. Here is a brief run-down of the stages in case you aren’t familiar with them.
Children are mainly conformist. They don’t know there are other options. There can be rebellion against authority but it’s predictably contrary.
Rebellion is the external appearance. What teens are actually doing is trying on many roles in a search for what they will become as adults.
The search for individuality continues. Lots of role-playing through work and higher education.
A role has been found that works and the individual becomes conformist to their own life choices.
In mid-life crisis, decades seem to have passed and plans haven’t work out. The person realizes that maybe their plans won’t work out at all and make changes. In the extreme cases, they change job, partner, friends, even their city.
Mid-life change also happens without a crisis. Ten years with the same employer or twenty in the same career and the years seem to be flying past. A career change slows things back down and cuts the boredom.
Everything they were trying to achieve has either been done or canceled. A new kind of conformity appears as they create a lifestyle within their retirement budget.
Even a story that takes place over a short period of time can use the stages of life. A character’s transition to the next stage will produce character change.
Change Due to a Secret Life
This kind of character change is a bit of a cheat. It’s exposing an additional role for a character. This makes the character more two dimensional rather than truly three dimensional.
Examples. The family man who turns out to be a bigamist with a second family he must protect. The woman whose evening job at a call center is actually work in a brothel because of her secret sex addiction.
The character doesn’t change, but they have changed for the reader as the other dimension of their personality is revealed.
Changes Due to Pressure
Events around a person create emotional pressure. They become convinced they must change. The conviction leads to action.
Consider the good person who would never hurt anyone, but is exposed to a neighbor’s spousal abuse. Sees how bad it is. Sees the ambulance and police visits. Sees the violence continue. Makes plans to hurt the abuser and then carries them out.
The ruthless businesswoman who hates the students protesting her franchise, but comes to sympathize with them when the police resort to clubs and tear gas. Then she goes against the franchise and creates her own business model.
Changes Due to Dissatisfaction
They can become tired of being out of shape. They can get tired of running on the company treadmill and not getting ahead.
Boredom can cause dissatisfaction at any time in life, not just mid-life. A job becomes too easy. A relationship becomes matter of fact. There seem to be no surprises in life. Time for a change.
Changes Because of Goals
Where they are now versus where they want to be. Resolving this conflict can be central to a novel.
Changes Due to Fortune
Both good and bad fortune cause life change. A cheating spouse or a new love. Bankruptcy or a lottery win. A big promotion or getting laid off.
Consider what has led to life changes for you. For your friends. Just as movies traditionally have two major changes to keep the story interesting, so should your novel. Life change can be one of those major changes.
Article by Ivan Izo.
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