Four-dimensional characters? Is that possible?
When we talk about four-dimensional characters, we are talking not in terms of physics and mathematics, but rather metaphysics. Rather than science, we are dealing with personalities and emotions, their being in the world you’ve created for them.
We tend to think of our fictional characters as real people, and more often than not, our characters are drawn from, or based on, real people. Our job is to make our characters seem real to those who read our stories.
We’ve all heard that characters should be three dimensional – that the three dimensions should encompass length, width and depth. This means they would have height, weight and a personality, but the fourth dimension brings something else entirely.
First and Second Dimensions
Width and depth - These dimensions encompass the physical aspects of your characters, how tall or short they are, what weight they are, what they look like generally, what their skin colour is and so on. These are the basic physical attributes to your characters, and although they may seem insignificant, you should always pat attention to the finer details.
Imagine if you sketched your main character. You would have general facial features, eye colour, hair colour, skin tone. They might wear glasses, they might have a beard, they might have a scar or birthmark, or a mole, or some other physical mark. They might look dark and brooding, or they might look light and happy. They might appear with slouched shoulders, or maybe they stand bolt upright. They may stand in a particular way and dress in a particular way.
You have the beginnings of a two dimensional character.
Depth – this is where your character’s personality comes into play. The depth of your character means his or her emotional being and the attributes they make up their entire individuality and character. This encompasses everything – how he or she would react in certain situations, or with other characters, all the things he or she likes and dislikes, what he or she thinks about the events around them. With whom do they have emotional attachments? Do they friends and enemies? If so, why?
Not only that, but are they religious or spiritual? Do they hate such higher thoughts? What makes them believe, or not? Do they have deep seated fears or phobias? If you think how complicated our own personalities are, then creating one for your characters is a complicated process too.
And just like real people, your characters will have flaws. We’re not perfect, and neither are your characters.
We all act and react in certain ways to certain people and certain situations. We also tackle daily life differently. So should your characters.
The fourth dimension concerns time. Every character you create has a present, the story of now, but that means they also have a past, and because of these two elements they will have a future (however short or long that may be).
A character with a past is fascinating. We all have a past, and this is what shapes who we are now, in the present. What happens in the present will shape what happens in the future.
Each main character has a timeline. Whether the history you construct for them becomes part of your novel or story or not, by developing them this way, so thoroughly, it will enable you to write the characters with ease because you know so much about them. Their background, their childhood, growing up, their experiences...all should be part of the character make-up and timeline. Give them a past to make them who they are in the present.
As your novel or story progresses and reaches a conclusion, your characters need to have a future. What will happen to them after the final page? Have some of them died, have they survived the story, and if so, how will this impact their future? How will the story change them now for the future yet to come?
Many beginners miss out this fundamental background for their characters, wrongly assuming that by giving them a name, hair and eye colour and a sense of style, that it’s all that’s needed.
It’s not. Fully rounded characters require length, width, depth and a sense of time.
My advice to writers is to try to create as much of a background as you can for your characters. This isn’t set in stone – it’s simply a template for you to refer to as you write, because you will find, just as a child grows and develops, your characters will also grow and develop as you write your story. They will mature in every sense before you. Allow that to happen, they may surprise you!
• First and second dimensional qualities – Physical and external features.
• Third dimension qualities – Emotions, thoughts, attitudes and spirituality.
• Fourth dimension qualities – Time. Their past history, the present and the future.
Next time: How reading helps you become a better writer.