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?






 

Introduction
As a blogger about writing, it probably comes as no surprise that I dabble with story myself. I recently read K.M Weiland's 'Outlining Your Novel' as I am looking to scrap and restart an old project. K.M. Weiland takes a non- prescriptive approach to outlining, recognising that writers are an idiosyncratic bunch, and that each one of us needs to develop our own approach to outlining. What Weiland does brilliantly is to describe her own process and to offer other strategies that may appeal to others.

One of the strategies that she uses herself and recommends is the character interview. Weiland has developed a comprehensive 100 question interview on her blog and you can get it here.  I decided that I would give it a go as a part of my own process.

If you listen to the Story Grid podcast as I do, you may have heard editor Shawne Coyne talk about the importance of the antagonist, about how these bad guys are the most important character in terms of driving the story, about how despite this they are often neglected by novice writers like me.

So I interviewed the bad guy.

Practical stuff

Secrets: are your characters hiding something?
Secrets: are your characters hiding something?

The interview begins with biographical stuff: places lived, education and schools, dating history, self-image. I found myself in 'interview mode' writing fairly fluently in the first person, thinking little or nothing about the literary quality of what I wrote. And I found that I was coming up with stuff about my character that I didn't know – most significantly a failed marriage, and a sadistic pair of step-brothers.

This was powerful stuff that I simply wouldn't have without having done the interview.

However, I came unstuck a bit on 'Is he lying to himself about something?' I couldn't answer this in the first person, and if I did I would obscure the information I wanted to detail.

The next section is a description of the character's appearance, preferences and habits, and I felt I had to stay in the third person for this. That said the physical stuff made me see that I really had not considered the character in adequate depth. My descriptions led me to do an image search on Google, where a found a rugby player who pretty much matches the ideas I had.

I saved the image so I can load it into YWriter. I even came up with a few usable similes!

Getting to know the character

Game of Thrones: every character has a story to tell.
Game of Thrones: every character has a story to tell.

 

Some of the most exciting questions in K.M Weiland's interview are the ones that you could almost transplant directly into a key moment in the book.

Questions like:

 

What’s the worst thing he’s ever done to someone and why?
And
What does/will he like least about the other main character(s)?

Answering these questions made me think about those revelatory moments in Game of Thrones where George R.R. Martin's characters share character forming incidents in their pasts. I could just imagine my antagonist revealing the angry 'self-defence' attack on his brother at some key moment I have yet to discover. This was feeling like a really useful exercise.

Developing my own approach

In terms of developing my own approach I think I need to divide up the questions into those I can answer in the first person and those I need the third person for. I'll put the first person questions first so that I can dive into the character before defining them from the outside in.

Having considered my story's overview using the Story Grid foolscap method in previous weeks, I really wanted to make sure that I was considering my characters in terms of their link to my controlling idea and key themes, and about the values they represent more specifically.

I also want to move the history to the beginning so that I can add key dates as I think of them. Also I imagine that these dates may be useful to me, and that I am likely to want to access this information quickly.

Conclusion

K.M. Weiland author of 'Outlining Your Novell'.
K.M. Weiland author of 'Outlining Your Novell'.

I'm always a little bit envious of writers whose characters speak to them. K.M. Weiland writes about characters that 'speak' in relation to this exercise. If you are one of those people then this exercise might get you there quickly. If you are more like me, however, and your characters just don't like you enough to chat, this exercise will give your plotting more power and fuel emotive revelations that will fire up key scenes. Either way the task is really enjoyable. It is, as K.M Weiland says, 'grand fun'.

See my character interview here.