As a new writer with little publication credit, I’ve been told the characters in my book must be fully three-dimensional in order for the reader to identify with them. And identify with them they must. Characters have to get inside the reader, inside his/her head and bounce around in there like old friends coming over for a Christmas visit. Trouble is, that’s a big task for the beginner, not used to developing human beings from the ground up. How does one make a truly “three-dimensional” character?
Like many terms in writing (and life in general) the term “three-dimensional” has been taken from another–and totally different–aspect of our existence, and seems, in my opinion, to be used rather willy-nilly to refer to characters for whom a large part of their life, their actions, their wants and likes, their dislikes and prejudices, and so forth, are revealed. They are presented in such a way that we as readers get to know them, to understand their motivation in every situation, and to make up our minds as to whether we like him/her or not.
For example, suppose I have two main characters in my story. Call them Mike and Sally. They go to a restaurant. The waiter who serves them may say a few words while he takes their order and serves the food, but is largely silent. That waiter could be described best as one-dimensional. He’s basically an adjunct to the story, of little consequence to the action, and not at all important.
But suppose that waiter confides to the couple, “I know where I can get you a great Rolex knock-off. Looks just like the original, for $45.” Now we’re alerted to the fact that the waiter is not just a waiter anymore. He has a life well outside taking orders and delivering food. He’s become more than one-dimensional, the author has added a second dimension to his life. It even suggests that later in the story, Mike or Sally might indulge in a little bit of speculation in the knock-off watch market.
Let’s take this further. Suppose we follow the waiter home after the restaurant closes. He pays off a policeman to look the other way during his dealings with his supplier of spurious Rolexes. After he arrives home, he beats his wife and kicks the dog. Quite a different personality from the smiling, cordial guy who took Mike and Sally’s order back at the restaurant. Now he’s become much more multi-dimensional. (Whether he’s actually three-dimensional or not is more a matter of opinion, but you get the idea.) We’re interested in this guy. We want to see more. Will Mike buy a knock-off? Will “the waiter” sell to him? Or will he beat the crap out of him?
What motivates this waiter? Why the anger? What’s going on here?
Every human is flawed. Every last piddly one of them. We all have our blemishes, our imperfections. We have our inconsistencies, our conflicts, our temperaments, and our characters in fiction should, too. Even an infant can go from a happy, smiling child to regurgitating all over your brand new silk damask gown. I’ve heard from members of critique groups about my characters, that “this is inconsistent with him/her. I don’t understand why he/she did that.” Now, partly this is due to my poor writing skills that have given that critiquer the wrong impression, but I suspect that to a certain extent this criticism is based on the idea that a character in a novel should (indeed must, according to some people) be totally consistent in everything he/she does, and can’t be expected to do something the reader doesn’t expect or doesn’t like.
Does art imitate life? Certainly it does, though it goes beyond that, too. Fiction is the art of bringing us a story about people we can care about, and only a fully developed character, flaws and all, can do that.