The most common advice I’ve heard for writing three-dimensional characters is to delve into their backstory, develop their personality profiles, and get to know them as if they are alive and kicking right beside you. Common wisdom seems to support that if the author knows their characters inside and out, then said characters will be three-dimensional on the page.
But it’s not always that easy. I just finished reading a book where all the characters were flat as pancakes, despite the reader knowing their backstories and character traits. The author attempted to give the characters depth by adding layers of information, except the problem with these layers is they were transparent. The reader could quite literally see through them to all the other layers. Do you all know about the onion metaphor? How the best characters are like an onion where you peel back the layers? The key to that working is you can’t see the layer below until you peel back the one above.
To put it simply, three-dimensional characters need SECRETS.
Now I don’t mean the characters must be withholding secrets from other characters (though they certainly can be), but rather that the author needs to withhold information from the reader regarding the characters. And when the author reveals that information, it should surprise the reader. When characters don’t have secrets, when they are exactly who they seem to be, they are predictable, and that makes the story dull.
So what kind of character secrets are we talking about here? Let me give some examples:
Personality Secret. People always present a certain version of themselves in public, but who are they really? Same goes for your characters. They all have a public persona, and that is what readers see first. But as the story progresses, peel back the layers and let readers find out who your characters really are. Maybe that strict vegan puts cream in her coffee when no one is looking. Or that grumpy lady loses her perma-scowl when she sees the old man next door.
Purpose Secret. This is when the reader thinks a character wants one thing but really they’re after another, or the character’s motivations are different than expected. This is a great way to add depth. Plus, this happens all the time in real life (always get the full story before making a character judgement, right?) and makes fictional characters feel as real and multi-faceted as you or me.
Identity Secret. Who doesn’t love a secret identity? It could be a secret the character keeps from others, or it could be a secret the character doesn’t even know themselves. It can be big (the character is really a princess!) or small (the character is so-and-so’s ex).
Opinion Secret. We don’t always say exactly what we mean, and neither should our characters. Writers can have fun with this by having a supporting character reveal what they really think of the hero’s plan at a crucial moment.
Backstory Secret. This is the most commonly used secret for trying to add depth to characters. The trick is to make sure the secret casts the character in a new light. For instance, if the hero is a tough guy and we learn that when he was five he was suspended for fighting, that adds no depth to his character because it’s predictable. But if we find out he was a peacemaker in his youth, then that’s a surprise and makes the character more intriguing because now we’re all wondering what turned this pacifist into a fighter.
The common denominator to all these secrets is they are contradictory to how the character was introduced. A secret must show the character in a new light, otherwise it’s not adding depth or dimension.
A simple test to see if your characters are three-dimensional is to ask this:
Does my character do anything unexpected?
If not, he or she is one-dimensional. And don’t mistake shocking for unexpected. I read a book where one character did some shockingly bad things, but he was set up to be such an awful person that these things weren’t unexpected at all. Therefore, he was a one-dimensional villain who was predictable and boring. And boring is what we’re all trying to avoid when writing stories!
Bottom line, characters who are three-dimensional are never who they initially seem to be. So give them some secrets!