In his book Story Engineering, Larry Brooks says you should “imbue your characters with three very separate and compelling layers—dimensions, in this context—that are carefully crafted to bring your story alive with resonant emotional depth.” If you choose to wing it, you most likely will end up with characters who are as flat as cardboard cutouts.
What are the three dimensions of character?
Let’s take a look at the three dimensions of characterization as defined by Larry Brooks, using a character from Harry Potter—Severus Snape–to illustrate them.
The first dimension reveals only surface level traits, quirks and habits. Think of it as a first impression where you only see how a person looks and behaves. You form an opinion about a person based on what you observe, but often what you see and what you get are very different.
Larry Brooks says, “the first dimension shows the way a character looks and acts…her hair, her make-up, the kind of car she drives, her wardrobe preferences, where she hangs out, her musical tastes, her taste in food, certain attitudes and prejudices, and so forth. It is largely a combination of two things: how she sees herself, and how she desires to be seen.”
Here is what we learn about Severus Snape upon Harry’s first encounter with him in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
The scene continues with Professor Snape intimidating his students. We form an opinion about Snape based on these surface level traits. He is cold, bitter, and resentful; a teacher who bullies Harry and other students.
The second dimension reveals backstory and inner demons which give the character depth and create reader empathy. The reader begins to understand the reason behind the first dimension characteristics.
According to Larry Brooks, the second dimension shows “where the character came from, the scars and memories and dashed dreams that have left him with resentments, fears, habits, weaknesses and inclinations that connect to why he is as he appears to be. These are all second-dimension forces that prompt and motivate and explain first-dimension choices of identity, even when those quirks are a complete smoke screen.”
We learn Severus was an awkward boy who led a lonely existence. With the exception of Lily Evans (Potter), he had few friends. Sirius Black and James Potter bullied him in school. As a result, he had a deep hatred for James. He misdirected that anger toward Lily when she became involved with James and he turned on the most loyal friend he’d ever had. His resentment grew and he turned to the dark side. He told Voldemort of a prophecy that would lead to Voldemort’s demise, but when he learned the prophecy involved Lily’s son, he immediately regretted that decision. He’d never stopped loving Lily and tried to save her, but it was too late. It cost him the person he loved most in the world. He was tortured by the part he played in Lily’s death. He was continually conflicted by his hatred for James and his love for Lily.
The third dimension reveals a character’s true nature through the actions he takes when there are deep consequences.
“In a pinch, when it counts, when there are consequences, which character traits will emerge? The first-dimension phony? The scarred second dimension loser? Or someone else? If it’s someone else, as demonstrated by a third dimension of character, that’s called character arc—the hero conquers inner demons to show himself as someone else, someone who has conquered inner demons to make better, even courageous decision.”
We are shocked to learn Snape has been a double agent: pretending to serve Lord Voldemort as a Deatheater while secretly loyal to Dumbledore and his cause. He has struggled with inner demons: his hatred of James, his unfounded resentment of Harry, and his regret over the poor decisions of his past. He is a very complex and flawed character who overcomes these inner demons and reveals his true nature when we learn he’s been protecting Harry; that it turns out he was motivated by love and loyalty to Lily all along.
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”
~ Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting
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