What is a three-dimensional character
In the past week we looked at the difference between character questionnaires that the protagonists design “from the outside in” and the design of a protagonist “from the inside out”.
A good approach to this is that of the writer and writing teacher Lajos Egri, who speaks of “three-dimensional” characters in his book “Literary Writing”. According to Egri's definition, these have a physiological, a sociological and a psychological dimension, which influence each other and only result in a realistic fictional character through their interaction.
The physiological dimension includes all physical aspects of the figure. It is clear that a handsome, gigantic young man with an athletic build leads a very different life than someone who is naturally small, frail, prone to overweight, or whose appearance deviates quite a bit from the classic definition of 'handsome'. Disabilities and other handicaps such as scars or chronic illnesses also belong to the physiological dimension of the figure.
The sociological dimension includes the environment of the fictional character. What kind of social environment and what kind of family did she grow up in? A girl who grows up in the big city with her single mother, who is fed up with men and does not let their hair down, and who is left to herself for the greater part of the day due to her mother's occupation, will find herself in this environment develop differently than a girl who grows up in a happy family with several siblings in a rural area and who always had the feeling that her parents always have time for her and are there for her. The sociological dimension also includes the circle of friends and acquaintances and later the professional environment with colleagues.
Many psychologists these days take the view that in many aspects of our lives we become closer to the three people we spend most of our time with. For example, if these people are physically active and fitness-conscious, you are more likely to be encouraged to lead such a life, whereas you will find it difficult if you spend most of the time with overweight couch potatoes. The old saying “like to join people at the same time” does not apply here, but the choice of people with whom we spend most of our time strongly influences the direction in which we develop ourselves.
That is also one of the reasons why stories in which the protagonist of the novel is torn out of his familiar environment and exposed to a completely new environment with different conventions are so successful. In which aspects will the character adapt to the new environment and thereby change - for better or for worse? Think, for example, of Harry Potter, who on his 11th birthday was torn out of his familiar surroundings (spiteful family, a small shack under the stairs as a nursery) and now learned as a sorcerer's apprentice at a magical school that not only magic exists, but that he is also very special himself.
The third dimension according to Lajos Egri is the psychological dimension, which also arises or develops in the other two dimensions. Someone who is tall, handsome and intelligent and to whom their parents and those around them have always made it understand that they are special and that they will achieve great things in their lives will develop a completely different view of the world and life than someone who grew up in poverty and was constantly harassed and labeled as stupid for no good by his unemployed, drunk and violent father since early childhood.
Well, that was a damn deep digging into the cliché box, but it's just about clarifying the concept. ;-)
Lajos Egri's concept has a very special charm because it is dynamic and takes the possibility of change into account. You can imagine it to be similar to a three-legged stool: if you change the length of one of the legs, the inclination and orientation of the seat automatically changes, which is then either more horizontal than before or is tilted as a result of the change.
If you design a credible 'three-dimensional' protagonist based on Lajos Egri (no matter what phase of his life he is in so far), the change in the physiological or sociological dimension can provide the material for an interesting novel.
Changes in the physiological dimension are usually deteriorations: illnesses, accidents, disabilities or signs of aging. A successful businessman who is forced to rethink his life and priorities by a life-threatening illness. A professional athlete who loses a leg in a car accident or even ends up in a wheelchair. An actress who fights against old age and fears that she will no longer get big roles if she is no longer youthful, beautiful and wrinkle-free. All material from which one could develop interesting protagonists and stories.
Improvements in the physiological dimension are also possible in the context of a novel, such as in the thriller "Johnny Handsome" with Mickey Rourke. Or think of the story, which has already been told hundreds of times in different variations, in which someone who used to be fat at school, suffered from acne or the like, or wore thick glasses, returns after years on the occasion of a class reunion and (now slim, athletic, handsome and successful) meets his former classmates who made fun of him at the time or even bullied him. Such changes also have a lot of potential for an exciting novel plot.
Changes in the sociological dimension can be good, bad, or just different. A small employee is supposed to inherit his deceased uncle and take over his company. A successful hedge fund manager, after losing both his job and personal wealth to a bad speculation, must move to a shabby area. An American businessman and his family have to go to Korea for a year to manage the branch of his company there.
Here, too, any change that distorts the previous balance can be the basis for an interesting plot. How do the changes affect the protagonist? Does he manage to adapt to the new environment? Which convictions, habits or prejudices does he have to rethink or throw overboard in order to come to terms with the changed situation and resolve the central conflict?
The psychological dimension results to a large extent from the physiological and sociological dimensions of the figure. Certain aspects, such as intelligence, are at least partially innate, but most of the psychological dimension depends on the physiological and sociological dimensions.
Imagine a skinny young man with protruding ears and a conspicuous eagle nose that is almost reminiscent of that of a carved puppet figure. What kind of character (psychological dimension) develops out of this physiological dimension depends in large part on the sociological dimension of his character: If this boy is the son of a working class family who is teased at school for his looks, he may become Be very shy, develop an inferiority complex, and have a tendency to stutter.
On the other hand, imagine if this boy were the only son of a millionaire industrialist. He sees the conspicuous nose, which would have caused complexities in the working-class child, as a special family feature, since he also sees it in his father and in the paintings of his ancestors, which hang all over the industrialist's villa. If other children rejected him because of his appearance, it would probably lead to the development of a cold, arrogant shell, but not to an inferiority complex or a stutter.
The environment in which we grow up, the political attitudes and ethical and moral values we receive from our parents, the beliefs we receive in our childhood and adolescence about things like money and family, and the friends we are with Surrounding us in our youth have a decisive influence on the character we develop into - and exactly the same applies to characters in a novel like our protagonist.
If you draw up the history of your protagonist and develop him into a rounded, three-dimensional figure according to Lajos Egri, you can better assess how this protagonist would decide and act in a certain situation. Even if this information may never make it to the pages of your novel, the reader will still feel that your protagonist is a real, well-rounded personality. And that is an important prerequisite for the reader to perceive the novel as plausible and credible.
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