How to Write a Multi-Dimensional Lead Character

Characters, like flesh-and-blood people, should be made of more than a single dimension. Lead characters, in particular, need a personal life, a family life, a professional life, and a spiritual life. Not all of these levels should be given the same level of attention, but they should all be present.

The lead character should change in some way during the course of the story in at least one of those areas. He should become a better father, for example. Or make wiser career choices or make changes in his personal life. Whatever the change, it should be something that makes the journey worthwhile for the character. Unless you’re writing a tragedy, the change should always be for the better overall, even if parts of it are bittersweet.

In many cases, a character will experience changes on more than one level. Changes in one level often lead inevitably to changes on another level. One of those levels will always be primary to the story, but that doesn’t mean it must be the only change.

Take, for example, what Dr. Stanley Williams refers to as the Moment of Grace in his book, The Moral Premise. The moment of grace, according to Dr. Williams, is that moment when the character learns that the way he’s been doing things isn’t working and he needs to change his methods.

In his book, Write Your Novel From the Middle, James Scott Bell refers to this as a Mirror Moment—that point in the story at which the character takes a long hard look at the person he is or has become.

In both instances, the character learns something that requires a decision. They don’t have to make the decision right then, but they should become aware of the decision. In many cases, what they decide and how they come to the decision is what propels the rest of the story.

How to Write a Multi-Dimensional Lead Character

The First Moment of Realization

This decision is likely to happen primarily at one level first, but it has the potential to affect all four areas to some degree.

Lets say the moment happens in the lead character’s personal life, first. He or she suddenly becomes aware of the type of person they’ve become. He or she sees two clear choices before them. Change with the hope that things will improve, or remain the same and continue down the current path, for better or worse.

That moment of awareness—the moment of grace or mirror moment—leads to the realization that change needs to happen on a professional level as well.

Those two changes are likely to affect the character’s family life.

Or maybe the moment happens first on the spiritual level. A change at this level is very likely to affect changes at all the other levels, depending on the type of life the character has been living up to that point.

Change on All Levels

Wherever the first realization occurs—family, personal, professional or spiritual—it should produce changes at other levels, as mentioned above.

If it doesn’t, you run the risk of writing a one-dimensional character; a character who confronts himself on one level but compartmentalizes that confrontation so it doesn’t affect any other part of life.

Yes, there are people who do that.

And, yes, you can write a good book about such a character if the confrontation is significant enough to carry the full weight of the book.

But fiction is a lot like real life in that no part of life is completely isolated from the other parts. The various levels of our lives are interdependent. The various levels of your character’s life should also be interdependent.

It doesn’t matter where the initial realization happens first. That will vary from story to story and character to character.

But if you want to write a multi-dimensional character who is involved in a story that keeps readers turning pages to the end, the first change the character makes—or refuses to make—should lead to further changes and further challenges.

Take a look at your work in progress.

Does your lead character have a clear character arc? Can you identify the part of his or her life in which the change happens first? Can the character and/or story line be improved by reflecting that change in the other parts of the character’s life?

Take Away Value

The most memorable and compelling stories are stories of change. If you want to write powerful stories, a strong character arc is a must.

The best path to a strong character arc includes strong moments of internal confrontations and changes on multiple levels.

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