Wright’s Writing Corner: The Three Levels of Character.

Hey all. Haven’t posted a Wednesday writing post in a while. Hoping to get back to it in September when the kids go back to school, but I thought I’d write down some ideas from a conversation I had with a fellow writer one night as we took a walk.

Our discussion was about character and what it meant to be a one, two, or three-dimensional character. Here are a few thoughts:

One-Dimensional Characters— are just that. They have one-dimension to them. The girl with red hair. The angry guy. They are very seldom memorable, because they do not have a second quality to distinguish them from every other character with the same quality.

If the only thing that sets ‘red-haired girl’ apart is her red hair, she is indistinguishable form all other girls with red hair.

One-dimensional characters appear in almost every work, because not all characters need fleshing out. The messenger who brings the news of the king’s death does not need a personality if he’s never to be seen again. Being ‘the messenger’ is just fine.

He could be the messenger with red hair or the messenger who was missing an arm. But he is still a one-dimensional character because he is indistinguishable from other one armed messengers, having no other qualities.

If the character changed their distinguishing characteristic, the reader could not recognize them. If red-haired girl showed up as a blonde, we would never know her.


Two-Dimensional Characters—are characters who always act in a predictable way.

She is the fiery redhead. He is the angry guy who apologizes terribly every time he hits someone. They are easily recognizable, because they always act exactly the same.

Two-dimensional characters are not necessarily forgettable. They can be complicated, even delightful. Some are famous. But we know them because they are always the same: the perky girl who always swears, the depressed boy who carries a blanket and sucks his thumb, etc. They never act out of character.

A really good example of beloved, vivid, two-dimensional characters are the Peanuts. They characters on the Peanuts never act out of character. Charlie Brown never wins. Lucy never gives him a break. But they are definite and recognizable and lovable.

If one day Charlie Brown got out of bed, put on a different shirt, acted brave and cheerful, and  won a game, we never recognize him.


Three-Dimensional Characters—are characters who come to life.

In particular, they are characters complex enough that we can recognize them even when they act out of character. They are character who have two separate themes to them that are in conflict with each other: such as, for instance, scofflaw rascal and Southern gentleman.

There is a logic to character…an interweave of qualities…that makes it so we can tell when someone is out of character as opposed to breaking character. A three-dimensional character is one who is so well defined that even when he acts out of character, he does not break character…and he is still recognizable as himself in a way that Charlie Brown or Lucy—much as we love them—would not be.

An example that comes to mind is Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. It is a huge surprise when the casual rascal decides to join the army when it becomes clear that the South is losing. It is so different from his normal way of behaving—from his two-dimensional front as a blockade runner who doesn’t care.

And yet, the character is skillfully enough drawn that the reader does not think, “Oh, come on, he would never do that. This is ridiculous. I’m not reading this tripe.”

Why? Because we know that the other string to his ‘scofflaw rascal present’ is his ‘Southern gentleman past’. Under pressure, it is his secondary qualities, his sense of honor, that come to the fore. The action is surprising and yet understandable.

A three-dimensional character can be go anywhere, be thrown into any situation and still be recognizable.


So…quick review:

One-dimensional characters never changes.

Two-dimensional characters have a range of behavior but cannot act outside that range.

Three-dimensional characters are recognizable in any situation.


At this point, my friend paused on the darkened sidewalk, stroked his beard, and said, “You know. I think I’m a two-dimensional character.”

(I wasn’t going to argue with him…but he’s not. ;)


Who are some of your favorite characters of varying dimensions?