By Britton Perelman
Characters must be three-dimensional. We hear this phrase all the time, yet there’s never a corresponding blueprint or checklist for how to create a three-dimensional character.
In conversation with The Hollywood Reporter’s awards analyst Scott Feinberg in an episode of the THR Awards Chatter podcast, story expert Robert McKee shared this bit of wisdom while discussing the benefits of binge-watching long-form television series:
“In film we talk about three dimensional characters — Tony Soprano, in my analysis, is a 12-dimensional character; Walter White is a 16-dimensional character. If you sit there for 10 hours, watching dimension after dimension, contradiction after contradiction emerge out of this character, you see how he treats his wife one way, then he treats his friend another way, then he treats his enemy yet another way … These brilliant cast designs of these great long-form series pull out consistent contradictory dimensions. That’s what a dimension is: a consistent contradiction within the nature of a character. After 10 hours, you have learned more about what it is to be a human being than you have ever in your life experienced in a feature film.”
When laid out that clearly, creating multidimensional characters seems simple. Dimensions are the result of consistent contradictions.
Consider Olivia Pope, the main character of “Scandal,” who, after it is revealed through supporting characters Quinn and Huck the first episode of the series that she doesn’t believe in crying, is brought to tears several times in the first season alone.
Or, take the characters in FX’s comedy, “You’re the Worst.” The two leads, Jimmy and Gretchen, are both cynical and self-destructive. Neither believes in the possibility of a successful romantic relationship, yet they find themselves in one nonetheless.
Look at Ron Swanson in “Parks and Recreation” or Dwight Schrute in “The Office.” Both have strong personalities — masculine and removed and serious and brash, respectively — yet both repeatedly show affection for various members of their offices time and time again.
A contradiction doesn’t have to be an issue of black and white, right or wrong, kind or mean. Like McKee says, it’s in the way Walter White treats the various people in his life. Contradictions can be found in personality traits, choices made, things said, or even subtle physical reactions. Sometimes contradictions are in the way these various aspects differ from each other.
‘A contradiction doesn’t have to be an issue of black and white, right or wrong, kind or mean.’
Though McKee was referring directly to television shows, this way of looking at characters is also applicable to movies but in a slightly different way.
In television, writers have a seemingly unlimited amount of time (episodes) in which to tell a character’s story. They have the luxury of letting a character’s complexities reveal themselves slowly, and for a character to change over the course of an entire series. But in movies, that time is limited. A writer has roughly two hours to tell an entire story that features multidimensional, complex characters. Those consistent contradictions, therefore, must be more immediately obvious and lead to a greater change in the character in a shorter amount of time.
In “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the narrator, Greg, assuages the audience’s worries early on and says that his friend, Rachel (the “Dying Girl”), doesn’t die. Upon making it to the end of the movie we learn that his statement was a lie, but the fact that he lies is a contradiction that reveals more about his character and his mental state given the circumstances. It makes him multidimensional and complex.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Inception” portrays himself in a different way to each member of the team he assembles, with only one person knowing the truth, something that comes back to hurt him in the movie’s third act. Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in “Casablanca” is seen saying that he’ll stick his neck out for nobody, then proceeds to do the exact opposite. And in “La La Land,” Ryan Gosling’s character says he wants to save jazz, but turns his nose up at John Legend’s character’s modern interpretation of the music genre.
“That’s what a dimension is: a consistent contradiction within the nature of a character.” We are complex, confusing, flawed, and that complexity is a direct result of our innate contradictions. No one, real or fiction, is simply three-dimensional. Certainly our characters deserve no less.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the latest thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her writing on her website, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.