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Creating 3D characters the Robert McKee way

In his incredible and seminal book, 'Story', Robert McKee recounts his time as an actor. Directors would extol to him the importance of creating three dimensional characters but would be unable to explain to him exactly what they meant by a dimension.

Meet Shelley:

Shelley discovered Buddhism ten years ago. In that time she has achieved an almost Zen like inner peace and is in tune with the world around her. She grew up on a country estate and is a crack shot, and clay pigeon shooting champion. She is hip too and is in demand as a DJ. Her specialism is Dub-Step. She is a divorcee and former beauty queen. She plays chess online and can compete with the grand-masters.

According to McKee, characters like my own Shelley (above) illustrate a common misconceptions about '3D' characters. And McKee gives his own example – a breakdancing ex-convict. The misconception is to confuse a dimension with a skills, abilities or powers. Shelley can do a lot of stuff, but as a character she is flat, flat, flat in every dimension.

Similarly he argues, it is a mistake to think that a single attribute makes a character 'three-dimensional'. He cites Macbeth. It is not Macbeth's “vaulting ambition” that makes him a successful, fully formed, '3D' character.

It is, he argues, the contradiction between his ambition and his guilt.

A dimension, then, is not an attribute or a skill, but a contradiction. It is a pair of opposing forces that exist within a single character.

What makes Romeo a fully developed character?I am teaching Romeo and Juliet for the first time at school right now and we can apply the same logic to Romeo. Critics and school teachers argue that Romeo's tragic flaw is his impetuousness. And I agree with that. But that alone is not enough to make Romeo a interesting character. Instead it is the contradiction between Romeo's impetuousness and his loyalty that makes him a fully formed and engaging '3D' character.

On a more contemporary level we might consider Ender Wiggins of Orson Scott Card's 'Ender's Game'. Ender is ruthless, but that is contradicted by his loyalty to Valentine and to his friends. One dimension. He is ambitious, but that is contradicted by his feelings of guilt for Stilson and Bonzo. Second dimension. He is fiercely independent but is at the same time reliant on the seemingly arbitrary decisions of Graff, Major Anderson and the Battle School personnel. Dimension number three.

Of all of our characters it is the protagonist whose dimensions matter the most. The protagonist is the character from whom all of our other characters hang, like decorations on a Christmas tree (apologies for the terrible simile which I already regret). It is the job of the supporting cast to trigger the dimensions of the protagonist. For that reason the protagonist must have more dimensions than any of the other characters. Dimensions energise supporting characters but too many will distract us from the spine of the story.

Of course, even a protagonist doesn't necessarily need three of these 'dimensions' . Sometimes one powerful dimension is enough, other times we might have a much greater number. Think of the multi-dimensional Hamlet for example.

How to use dimensions

Sol Stein tells us that the biggest mistake that new writers like me (and maybe even more experienced writers like you, perhaps) make is to make protagonists that are too 'wishy washy', to much like ourselves. And in my own aborted half-novel (my biggest attempt at writing to date) I made exactly this mistake. My protagonist lacked direction, was as inconstant, as moderate and, as dull as I am myself.

I hope that thinking carefully about the specific dimensions of my protagonist can help me find a protagonist who is complex enough to seem real and also, vitally, dramatic enough to be compelling.

Currently, I am working my way through character interviews with the intention of rewriting the aborted novel mentioned above. I have added a section for dimensions (even more) to the beginning of the character interview that I have taken and adapted from K.M. Weiland's blog.

My detective, Bartholomew Jones (too much like Indiana Jones – I'm thinking about changing it) is a teenage detective. He has suffered powerful rejections that send him on a quest for justice. I have decided to give him the following dimensions:

Character dimensions:
1. justice vs realism
2. independent vs attraction to manipulators
3. pride vs fear of rejection

I'm not sure whether these seem definite or specific enough to give my hero the fuel he needs and if I think of something better I'll change it.

Did any of you guys think about dimensions for your characters? What were they? Any tips?






 

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