What are we talking about when we say “three dimensional character”? What is a “dimension” anyway? Many writers are scared of the idea of writing boring one dimensional characters, and yet when asked what those are, they struggle to provide a clear answer.
That’s because there isn’t “one” answer. Everyone has a different definition of character dimension and most definitions can’t be considered wrong.
This is the first of a series of posts that will explain the different points of view about “one / two / three dimensional characters” of the most famous figures in the screenwriting and writing business. I’ll do that by using movie characters as examples.
According to Robert McKee
“When I analysed Tony Soprano, I found him to be a 12-dimensional character. Walter White has almost 16 or 18 dimensions. He is maybe the most complex character ever written by anyone, for any medium. He generated five or six seasons.”
But why? In his book “Story” he explained that a dimension is essentially a contradiction in the character’s personality, one side of the character drives him to take one action and another side drives him to take a different action.
It’s not uncommon for characters to want different things at the same time. We do that in real life as well.
“I’m on a diet because I want to get in a better shape” that is one aspect of a character that drives him towards a clear goal: get in a better shape. But would a character like this be interesting? Would you sit for hours in front of a screen watching a girl who decides to start a diet succeed without problems or obstacles? I wouldn’t.
Let’s add a contradiction: “I’m on a diet because I want to get in a better shape. But I also want to eat because I find comfort in food”. This contradiction generates conflict, her story won’t be a safe comfortable journey, it will be a rollercoaster. She’ll succeed sometimes and fail some other times, and we’ll never know until the end if she can reach her goal.
One characteristic + one contradictive characteristic = one dimension
Without going as far as to try to guess all the 18 dimensions of Walter White, let’s see why the protagonist of the Disney movie Moana can be called a 3 dimensional character.
Character dimension 1: the daughter of the chief and the voyager
This conflict is expressed right away in the song “How far I’ll go”. As the daughter of the chief she has the responsibility to stay in the village and take care of her people, but she also wants to follow her dream to leave the island to explore the world.
Her desire to make her father proud and be a valuable member of her community is expressed by the action of putting her rock on top of the ones of the old chiefs. On the other hand, her drive to the ocean is symbolized by her first failed attempt to cross the reef.
At the end of act one, these two conflicting parts of her personality find a way to merge: she leaves the island, not for selfish reasons, but because that’s the only way to help her people.
Character dimension: 2 the explorer and the beginner
Her admiration for her ancestors and adventurous spirit are admirable, but not enough to give her the ability to navigate. Since she has never left the island, she doesn’t have the expertise necessary to orientate herself or use her boat.
We can see this inexperience by her clumsiness, and her determination by her stubborn attempts to make it on her own.
At the midpoint of act 2, she finds a way to solve this problem by asking Maui for help; now her curiosity and courage are matched by the skills necessary to sail the sea.
Character dimension 3 The insecure girl and the savior
At the beginning of the third act she’s at the lowest point of her journey. In the middle of the sea, alone and confused, Moana has to confront her deepest fear: not being good enough.
Her insecurity is expressed by the fact that she starts doubting the Ocean’s decision to choose her, while her confidence comes out after the vision of her grandmother reassures her.
During the confrontation with Te Fiti we see once again this conflict: she looks down at the burned land in the middle of the sea, then she turns and walks towards her enemy confident that her decision to trust her is right.
And in the end, in a scene that seems to be reaffirming McKee’s definition of contrast being dimension, the rocks and the lava become fertile green land and Te Fiti herself is now a complete character with two conflicting sides.
A few of the links above are affiliate links. This means that if you purchase a product from the company’s website I will earn a commission. Bear in mind that I only included links to companies that are trustworthy for products that I have used myself.