When approaching a novel, you are going to have a wide range of different characters. Some will play a larger role in the plot and some will not. There is a lot of discussion about making characters three-dimensional and not ‘flat’, and this is very important, but it does not necessarily apply to every character.
This post will explore the differences between one-dimensional, two-dimensional and three-dimensional characters and discuss the place they have in your novel. It will also aim to give some tips and ideas about how to make a character stand out and have depth when necessary.
To explore the character, I’m going to mainly use examples from the master of deep and complex characters: William Shakespeare.
The Three Different Levels of Character
One Dimensional Characters
These are characters that appear perhaps for just a single scene, or for a few lines. They are usually there to serve a purpose that is not character - i.e. furtherance of the plot, or for the establishment of a scene or mood. They have no particular motivation, flaws, development, or depth.
Don’t be fooled into thinking these characters have no place in your novel. They do. It’s just important that you understand what place they have.
Two Dimensional Characters
These are the secondary cast of characters. People that appear more than once, but are not central to the protagonist’s arc. This might be a Police Chief, if your novel is about a detective, who appears to reprimand him once or twice, but isn’t really central to the developing arc.
These characters should have more depth. They don’t need to be complex explorations of the human condition, with complicated flaws and backgrounds and an detailed arc, but they should have three clear things: goal, motivation, conflict.
We’ll explore these more later.
Three Dimensional Characters
These are your central protagonists. The main person driving your story and the closest people to that narrative. Also, probably your main antagonist as well. It should certainly encompass more than just your protagonist.
These characters should have depth. By this, I mean they should have everything that the two-dimensional characters have, but in multitude. They should have multiple conflicts, multiple goals and multiple conflicting motivations.
When and How They Should Appear: 1-D Characters
One-dimensional characters are characters that appear very briefly, perhaps in a single scene or for a very brief moment in multiple scenes. If the character appears more than that, you should consider making them a 2-D character.
If they are brief in appearance, 1-D characters are fine. They appear in novels all the time. But if you are going to make your character one dimensional, you need to be aware of what that dimension is.
What is the purpose of your character?
It should really fall into two categories - plot or setting.
A character designed to further the plot is one that appears and gives information to the protagonist or perhaps drives the plot forward by doing something to the protagonist to push him elsewhere. (i.e. stealing their purse and running away, causing the protagonist to chase them somewhere).
A character designed to further setting does something to add to the atmosphere or mood. For example, a thug beating up someone to establish a dangerous street scene.
You need to know which one your character is doing and why they are there.
Then you need to think about how you can get them to do both. After all, just as all your sentences should be trying to further both plot and character simultaneously, your 1-D characters should try and further plot and setting simultaneously.
Let’s take a look at the opening of Hamlet. It opens with two 1-D characters, Bernardo and Francisco, atop the walls of Elsinore castle. We don’t really hear much from them ever again, but they are clearly there to warn Horatio (a major character) that they have seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This is the inciting incident of the action of the play, and they are there to push that plot point forward.
However, they also manage to deliver setting. Bernardo’s first line, and the first words of the entire play, is: “Who’s there?” followed by Francisco’s “Stand and unfold yourself.”
The tension of the unknown and the recurring sense of being untrusting of others is established. This continues in their dialogue as they are worried and reticent. It establishes an atmosphere of unease atop the castle walls, which is touched upon later when one of the soldiers on the castle walls says “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
So while the characters themselves are relatively flat, their purpose is very clear. They are there to inform Horatio of the inciting incident and set in motion the action of the play and they are there to establish atmosphere and a setting of unease that dominates the rest of the play.
They are successful characters not because they have depth, but because they have purpose.
Task 1: Go through and identify the 1-D characters in your novel. Are they furthering both plot and atmosphere/setting? If not, is there a way to make them do that?
When and How They Should Appear: 2-D Characters
These are characters that appear more often, but not quite often enough to be considered a main character. Any character that appears in two or three scenes or more or has significant and meaningful dialogue and action with the main characters should be at least 2-D.
2-D characters need the following: goal, motivation and conflict.
Let’s consider Othello, another great Shakespearean tragedy. In Othello, we are introduced to the character of Brabantio - Desdemona’s father. Now, he is not a main character really as he doesn’t appear anywhere except for Act 1. But in the scenes he is in, he has a pretty significant impact on the plot and so is worth making at least 2-D.
In the play, he discovers that Othello and his daughter are to be wed and he is furious. He has motivation, which is to stop the marriage, he has a conflict (in that the Duke is happy to let them be wed and he can’t stop it) and he has motivation (albeit that he is a misogynist and a racist).
He is not deeply complex, but he doesn’t need to be. He works as a 2-D character because he gives other characters the opportunity to shine. This leads me to my next point:
Characters as Foils
One thing 2-D characters are very good for is as foils for the main protagonists. In Hamlet, Fortinbras is relatively 2-D. He doesn’t need to be complicated, as he is barely in it. In fact, he doesn’t show up until the very end.
However, his existence as a character acts as a direct contrast to Hamlet. They are both sons who have dead fathers and have uncles ruling the throne. Fortinbras’s determination for revenge and action highlights Hamlet’s inaction. By having a character to compare Hamlet too, all of Hamlet’s interesting insecurities and flaws shine all the brighter.
Foil characters are used across literature and can be very good uses for 2-D characters. However, they must have a goal, conflict and a motivation. If they do not, they are a 1-D character. And you shouldn’t use a 1-D character as a foil.
When and How They Should Appear: 3-D Characters
Lastly, we come to 3-D characters. These are your main characters. Your Frodo and Sam. Your Harry, Ron and Hermione, and probably your Voldemort.
They, too, have to have a goal, a conflict and a motivation, but they also need to have more depth than that. One of the easiest ways to do this is to have multiple goals, conflicts and resolutions, all of them conflicting with one another.
Let’s look at Macbeth, one of the great tragic heroes. In the play he has multiple conflicting goals: he wants to serve his King. He wants to do well for his wife. He wants to fight his pride. He wants to give in to his ego. He wants to be King. He wants to work out whether the witches are telling the truth. Etc.
His goals are very conflicted and this makes him interesting.
Even more importantly, his motivations are conflicted. He himself is not sure why he wants these things.
Be careful though, as this is where authors fall into a common trap. Not being sure about your motivation for something is not the same as having conflicting motivations. You can’t just remove motivation or make motivation unclear and muddy - that makes your character flat. You need clear identifiable motivations that are actively conflict with one another. Think about Macbeth:
- He wants to serve his King because he believes in honour and has always thought of himself as an honourable man.
- He wants to become King because deep down he has a heavy sense of pride and ego.
- He wants to serve his King because he actually loves the man, and he has a deep respect for all the things he has done for Macbeth in his life.
- He wants to become King because his wife urges him to, goading him to do it and he wants to please her.
- He wants to serve his King… etc.
And this is just at the start of the play. These motivations are all there, but they conflict with one another. He is complex. He is 3-D.
Each of the goals need to have their own conflicts, too, or they aren’t interesting. Often, the conflicting motivations provide conflict, but you want to be sure that the conflicts aren’t entirely internal. External conflict is necessary for character stakes and growth.
For example, for his goal of killing the King, Macbeth is faced with a very real conflict of having to kill him without being caught. This leads him to other murders and down a dark path.
For his goal of being honourable and serving his King well, Macbeth is faced with the very real and physical conflict of his wife berating him and pushing him to kill him, as well as the supernatural force of the witches pushing him to do it.
These conflicts conflict with one another, so to speak, and offer us a deep and complex 3-D character.
Know which of your characters are 1-D, 2-D, and 3-D. Once you know that, make sure you know what they are doing and why.
1-D characters should have both a plot and a setting purpose.
2-D characters should have a clear goal, conflict and motivation. They could also be a foil.
3-D characters should have multiple conflicting goals, conflicts and motivations.
You need a range if you want a good character cast. No one wants a book with only 1-D characters, but no one has time or space for a book with only 3-D characters either. It gets way too cluttered.
I’ve had some requests to start posting again and I can only apologise for being so absent over the past few months. Work has been outstandingly busy and… well, I’m going to stop the excuses there because you probably don’t care. Nonetheless, I hope to be back with more regularity from now on.
One of the hardest realisations that can come to a writer is that they need to spend as much time, if not more, on redrafting than they do on actual writing. After a year or so of sitting down and trying to put in a certain number of words a day and feeling like you’ve finished something, this can be disheartening. Especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Redrafting, like writing, is a skill that needs to be built up over time. No one is magically a great writer and no one is suddenly perfect at redrafting their work. If they were, professional editors would be out of a job. However, there are a few tips that can be given for someone going through this lengthy process.
I can’t tell you the best way to redraft. This is subjective. Everyone has their own way. I can tell you what I do and in the process give you some suggestions and perhaps some ideas.
What To Redraft?
When you approach a section of your text, you shouldn’t try to redraft all elements of it at once. This will end up lacking focus and mean that your redrafting won’t be as effective as it could otherwise be. I would recommend breaking down things that need fixing into four broad sections, with increasingly wide focus:
These are the basics of spelling and grammar. Are all the tenses and punctuation and sentences correct or at least as correct as you want them to be? Is everything spelled right? It’s a boring, but important part of the process. Nobody wants to read a sloppy writer.
This is still tightly focused on sentences and paragraphs, but is less about technical nature than about whether it flows well. Does that sentence need to be there? Are these words in the right order? Is there too much passive voice / adverbs / purple prose? Do all the sentences move character/plot/setting forward?
This is wider and less about individual sentences. Are the characters consistent and developing in interesting ways? Is the plot moving forward or stagnating? Does the continuity make sense?
This is one often forgotten about, but just as important. For each section or chapter, re-read just for tone. What is the tone like? Is the atmosphere dark or happy? Is it what you want it to be or does it jump in a jarring way between different tones?
These should be approached separately, and at different times, before approaching them individually. For each of them, there are tips and tricks that I will try and give you to try.
When To Redraft?
Many people fall into the trap of spending forever redrafting the start of their novel and never finding their way to the end of it. This is bad. I am a strong believer in the idea that you need to be producing if you ever want to get anything done.
You need to be getting the words out on the page, or there is nothing for you to redraft. On top of this, it is easy to get stuck in redrafting hell, where you feel like you are going round in circles, and lose the motivation and momentum you have for completing the book. A lot of the motivation in writing a novel comes from actually seeing the word count grow and the novel get completed, bit by bit. If you remove this, you are giving yourself a tough deal.
That being said, I would personally advise some level of redrafting as you go along. If you are aiming to hit a certain word count, then you are inevitably going to be making mistakes. I don’t care how fantastic of a speller or how strict of a grammar nazi you are, in anything extended there will be errors. This will be in both language and in continuity, at the very least.
There is a happy balance to be found in between.
I write chronologically. I plan and outline in detail, but I don’t know what twists and turns and intricacies are going to develop in the characters and relationships until I’ve written them. As such, I feel uncomfortable jumping ahead to a scene even if I know what it's going to look like plotwise.
Every time I write a chapter, I give it a quick redraft focusing on technical errors. I might look a little bit at flow, but it will be less so. If anything about character or plot jumps out at me, I leave a comment (Scrivener and google docs are good for this).
Then I move on. Leave it. Come back to it later, when you’re done.
What To Do When You Have Finished Writing - Redrafting the Whole Manuscript
When the manuscript draft is done, I go through 6 steps of redrafting for each chapter, which I will outline for you. I do each step, for each chapter, then for the whole book, then I do it again. It is long and time-consuming, but as far as I’m concerned it is well worth it.
Step 1 - Reading for Flow
Go through chapter by chapter and read for flow. When you read, read with a fine toothcomb. Focus on every sentence and think about if it needs to be there, what it is doing, and if it could be written better.
First of all, think about the following:
If you catch it, think about if you need it. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. Make sure it is a choice, though. Make sure all your writing is a conscious choice and not just the first words you happen to have written.
Adverbs and purple prose
Lovely prose is lovely, but if your sentences go on for way too long without much clarity, this is a problem. Cut what can be cut. Kill your darlings.
The great Gary Provost line on sentence length is often quoted, but that's only because there is so much truth to it. You should aim for variation in sentence length and in paragraph length. If all your sentences are five words long it will be dry. If all your sentences are 30 words long, it will be dry. Vary it up. Think about why you are using sentence length.
There are some fantastic online tools that you can use for the above. They are excellent ways of seeing your writing in different lights.
Grammarly - www.grammarly.com
Great for technical errors, but be careful if you are writing sci-fi or fantasy as it will pick up any new words or elements of world-building. Also, it will be strict with sentence fragments and clauses and often good prose doesn’t stick to grammar so strictly. So don’t take everything as gospel - just use it as a tool to see your work in a different light.
Hemingway App - www.hemingwayapp.com
Paste your chapters into here and it will show sentence length, passive voice and adverbs in neat colours. Again, please don’t take this as gospel. A computer can never tell you what good writing is. Don’t automatically delete anything it highlights. But do use it to see where you are using these things in your writing and consider if you need them. Make sure all your choices are conscious ones.
Pro Writing Aid - prowritingaid.com
If you sign up for a free account you can paste short pieces in at a time. It will give you a breakdown of cliches, repeated phrases and words and all the technical bits about your flow you never knew were there. Same advice for this as the above - it’s a tool. Use it, don’t let it use you.
Here’s another tip:
Print out your writing, if it is on computer. It really helps to see it in a different way. When it is printed out, get four different highlighters of four different colours.
For every sentence, highlight one colour if it is developing plot, one if it is developing setting and one if it is developing character. Use the fourth colour if it is doing two or more.
If anything isn’t highlighted, have a long hard think about why it is there. Probably delete it.
If you’ve gone for a while without using the fourth highlighter, think about how you can start to merge sentences to make them work harder and do two or three at the same time.
Once you’ve gone through a whole chapter, move onto the next. Lengthy and time consuming, yes, but ultimately very valuable.
During this time, you will undoubtedly notice problems with continuity in plot, or with inconsistency in character. If they are small, fix them quickly. If they are major, make a comment or a note and leave it for now. Don’t get distracted from your focus.
Step 2 - Fixing Character and Plot Issues
Once you’ve re-read through the whole book, now you can fix all the notes and comments you made. Go back through and resolve every single one.
Then do this:
Write down the names of all your major characters and ask yourself these questions:
If the answer is no, or ‘I’m not sure’ to any of these for any characters that are in more than just a scene or two, then this is a problem.
Draw your plot arc out on a graph of tension over time. Highlight where the moments of highest tension and excitement are and where the low points are. Make sure there aren’t too many of each all together. If it is all constant high-tension this gets tiring. If there is too long without it, this gets boring. Variation is key.
Keep asking yourself:
Are there stakes here? Is there conflict? Does the audience know what the stakes and conflict are?
Step 3 - Leave It Alone
Leave it alone.
Seriously. Stop reading it. Stop looking at it. Leave it for at least 3 weeks, preferably more.
If you need to fulfill your need to write, go write something else. Start on a sequel or a new WIP. Write some short stories.
In this time, read some popular books in your genre. Whatever is the best-seller or best reviewed book right now. Read two or three of them if you can, if you are a quick reader. The idea is to get your book out of your head, but still stay in the realm of your genre and your writing.
Only once you have done that, come back to it.
Step 4 - Reading for Flow (again) and Tone
This time, don’t read it on your computer. If you have paper and ink, print the manuscript. If you have a kindle or an e-reader, put it on that. The idea is that you want to be approaching your book as a ‘book’ and not as your WIP.
Personally, I love putting my book on my kindle at this stage, with a nice fancy title and chapters and everything. This is really easily done. It helps me read it like its a published work without actually publishing anything.
But keep your computer nearby. You will undoubtedly catch more flow and technical issues this time around. This will happen. As soon as you find them, fix them, then go back to your kindle or paper.
Overall, you should be reading it for tone and pacing. Read it like you are reading another best seller in your genre. What bits are you getting tired reading? What bits can’t you put down? What bits make you respond emotionally and what bits are a struggle to get through?
Make notes of all of these things and fix them when you get to the end.
Step 5 - Beta Readers
Now you are ready to have someone read it.
No. Not an agent or an editor or a publisher. Just regular people.
This can be tough as you don’t want to put your baby out there, and it is nerve-wracking, but you need to do it. Ask anyone you can who you know is a reader. Ask people at work, ask friends, ask family.
Don’t apologise for it. Don’t say “I know it might be terrible, but I would really…” No.
Just say: I’ve written a book. I would love for you to read it and I’d really appreciate whatever criticism you can give me. Let me know if you have the time and I will send it to you. Thanks so much.
Now - here’s something you need to remember. People will be kind, because that’s how people are. They will say yes in larger numbers than you expect.
Then they won’t read it.
Don’t take this as criticism. Many people don’t want to reject you to your face, but simply don’t have the time to sit and read a book that they are unsure about. Some people will never even read the first page. Some people will read the first chapter and stop.
This doesn’t mean your book is terrible.
Be patient. Wait. Let people read. Don’t badger them too much, as much as you really want to. Of course, if everyone stops after the first chapter, then you are learning something about your first chapter.
But with my first book, I sent it to about 10 people. Only 4 actually read it. One was my dad. They gave me very good criticism and feedback. The others just said “sorry, I never found the time.”
And that’s okay. It’s not their responsibility to read your book. Just be thankful to the ones that do.
As they are reading and after they have read, make a document on your computer called Beta-Reader Feedback. Write down any feedback you get. Any and all. Doesn’t matter how much you disagree with it. Don’t tell anyone you disagree with them, or you’ll never get honest feedback again. Also, it isn’t your choice to make. If someone doesn’t like something, they don’t like something. Don’t argue with them about it or try to justify it. Thank them for their feedback, write it down, and move on.
If something only comes up once, it’s forgivable. If something comes up multiple times, address it.
It is also a good idea to come up with a list of pertinent questions to ask Beta-Readers. Some include:
- Who was your favourite character and why?
- Who was your least favourite and why?
- Which section do you remember the most?
- Did any section seem slow or boring?
You will of course have many more specific to your novel, but these can be very helpful.
Step 6 - Fixing Remaining Issues
Fix all the remaining issues that arise from beta-reading and finally, your manuscript might be ready. If it was me, I’d give it another full read through, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist.
Redrafting is a difficult process and a lengthy one, but the more work you put in the better your manuscript will be. Re-read several times and change your focus when you do. Read once for flow and technical errors, then read again for character and plot, then again for tone. Take people’s advice seriously. They are your readers and their advice is gold to you.
Good luck all with redrafting.
My next post will be on character. See you in a couple of weeks.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.