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 am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.