July 26, 2009

One, Two, and Three Dimensional Characters and How to Use Them

Different characters have different levels of depth to them, dimension if you will. A concept I read about once, categorizes these levels into dimension types and explores those types to better aid in character creation and story telling. This article is my spin on the different levels of character depth as well as my commentary on the ways I've found most helpful in using them effectively.

At first glance it seems like a simple concept, but distinguishing these dimension types and integrating them properly into a story can GREATLY improve reader engagement, scene pacing, and believability. Recognizing both the under-developed and over-developed characters in my stories helped me improve my writing in the aforementioned areas and it can do the same for you. It is important for a writer to know both when a character needs to be developed and when to move on.


A one-dimensional character constitutes the "walk on" parts of the story. These are your waiters, your cab drivers, bartenders, a mother walking down the street, or the random pikeman your hero stabs through the face (though not always). They are briefly seen and do not speak. One-dimensional characters that spend more than several pages in your story should be made two-dimensional. Beside possible subplots, adding realism to an environment, or even promoting general interest, any interaction with a main character serves to flesh out the personality of both characters and add dimension to a scene or personality. Any walk-on that could successfully be made into two-dimensional character should...unless doing so awkwardly upstages an important character/moment or harmfully dilutes the pacing of a scene.

A two-dimensional character is the same as one-dimensional character except for the fact that they show one emotion or character trait. They are also known as "cardboard" characters, your cutouts, because they lack dimension. They show a little bit of character through their words, actions, or emotions, but everything they reveal is of a one-track nature that's somewhat undeveloped and often lacking in background, explanation, or depth.

Unlike the one-dimensional character, they must react through speech or gesture to reveal an emotional trait. Their reactions and integrations in the story are often brief, but not always. Though a main character may be present the majority of the story, if he/she is lacking in depth, complexity, or history, that character becomes two-dimensional. One of the biggest dangers to believability or engagement of readers in a story is a lack of depth to main, or even secondary characters.

A three-dimensional character however, plays an important role in the story and constitutes all major characters, including villains. They have complex emotions and sometimes conflicting motives, troubled pasts and deep worries. They are alive with passion and ambition and desire, never apathetic (and if they are, they are overly apathetic).

Every feature and aspect about them is exaggerated and heightened, and the reader must absolutely understand who they are, and have a profound feeling that they existed long before the story began. Any character that spends longer than several pages in your book should be three-dimensional, or the reader can quickly lose interest.
Problems in choice of characters arise when a character is much too shallow (i.e. a hero having little to no background, identifying characteristics, or consistency in personality) or when too much focus is given to a character that does not influence the events of the story in any major way (i.e. a waiter being psycho-analyzed through narrative when the major characters meeting in the restaurant are supposed to be the main focus). Misusing or poorly developing characters are among the best ways to lose reader interest. So make sure you both focus your narrative attention and develop your characters accordingly.

Thanks for reading :D Liked what you read? Try checking out the popular posts linked to at the top of the side bar.
For more tips on developing characters specifically, check out the article on character bio's/character building at: Character Bio's: Why and How

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Adaikalaraj prabu said...

This is a great post on writing tools! I enjoyed reading it. Do visit my website on content writing tips

SuperMan said...


Jimmy Armes said...

Awesome and helpful!

Dolores T. said...

Succinct, brief, relevant, to-the-point (yeah, I know I'm using lots of words that are synonyms). What else? Helpful. I rewrote a whole novel using the concepts so well outlined here. Thank you very much, Aaron! You're a very good teacher.

Lamar Namou said...

The characters in Attack On Titan would be considered Two-Dimensional then, right? Cause, all they do is cry. If they're not doing that, they're thinking about crying.

Anonymous said...

Helped a lot while writing an essay!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. This was very informative and helped me a lot.

Carly Tucci said...

Thanks for doing this. It might help me some.

Graham Oakman said...

Click here you can get some useful tips about character analisis

Faith P 4 said...

good information

Faith P 4 said...


Brandy Lehmann said...

You should examine this blog for even more articles and tips from advanced writers for newbies ones.

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