I remember when I first heard the term “three-dimensional character.” It sounded like one of those things clueless producers mutter when they don’t know why they don’t like something. Oh yeah, the characters weren’t, umm, “three-dimensional.” That’s why I didn’t like it. Occasionally, you’d run into one of the more affluent execs, who might throw this curve ball at you: “Your characters never popped off the page.” What the hell does that even mean? It’s a freaking piece of paper. If you want things popping off pages, head over to the children’s section at Barnes & Noble.
Ah, but as time went on and I came into contact with more intelligent and established entertainment folk (purely by accident of course), I noticed them using these same darn phrases. “Sorry, the characters have no depth.” “They were paper thin.” “The plot was okay but the characters never popped off the page.” Urgh. Wherever I went, this three-dimensional character thing was following. I needed to find out what was going on.
So I did a little research into this “3rd dimension” and repeatedly came across the term: “character flaw.” This seemed to be the all-elusive key to achieving character depth. A character flaw, I found out, was a negative trait holding your character back from becoming whole. Okay, I could get on board with that. I started watching my favorite movies and, lo and behold, it was true! There were character flaws everywhere I looked. Neato!
But then tragedy struck (well, subjectively speaking). I was on a screenplay message board one evening and found a thread discussing this exact topic. The head screenwriting message board guy in charge (HSMBGIC) was saying that not all characters had character flaws. Indiana Jones didn’t technically have a flaw. John McClane in Die Hard didn’t have a flaw. My whole screenwriting world came crumbling down. What next? Were there screenplays without words?? How could anything make sense anymore!!!
If only that were it. As if some phantom force was set on getting me to commit scripticide, I was introduced to yet another term: “Inner Conflict,” which writers were using interchangeably with “character flaw.” Yet another screenwriter cornered me and whispered, “Don’t listen to those bums. The key to a great character? A VICE.” Don’t even get me started on 70s Writer Guy, who kept telling me all I needed was a good “character fear.” Character fear?? What the hell was that??! It was at that moment I did what any slug-fearing screenwriter would do. I bought a case of Bud Ice at the corner liquor store and got drunk.
I won’t get into how that began a three year bout with alcoholism that ended with me on the top of a stoplight on Santa Monica and Wilshire screaming (the cops informed me), “Knick-Knack Paddywack, give E.T. a phone!” The good news is, I’m better now. And I have medication. Which allows me to drive by myself. Which led to a lot of library visits, where I actually learned what all these terms meant! And because I don’t want you to have to go through what I went through, I’m going to break all of them down and show you how you can use them to add depth to your characters. Get ready for your life to change. As one of the greatest philosophers in history once said…”I’m tan mom. Biyyyyyyaaaaattttcchhhh.”
Flaw – A character (or fatal) flaw is the dominant negative trait that’s held your character back from becoming the person he’s meant to be. Selfishness, lack of trust, won’t open up, won’t stand up for themselves, being irresponsible – these are all flaws you’ve seen hundreds of times in films. The most powerful character flaws tend to be the ones that have hindered your character their entire lives. So in Rocky, Rocky has never believed in himself. But flaws can occasionally be a more recent problem, typically the result of a recent traumatic experience. So if a character was recently dumped by someone they loved, maybe their flaw is that they don’t trust love anymore.
When done right, the character flaw is the most effective way to add depth to your character. This is because once a reader identifies a character’s flaw, there’s an intrinsic need to see that flaw overcome. Being able to change is one of the most universally relatable experiences there is. So seeing someone else do it makes us believe we can do it. It’s almost like we’re living THROUGH the character, and that’s what creates that deep emotional connection.
Inner Conflict – The term “Inner conflict” is often mixed up with “character flaw” because they both infer struggle within our character. But inner conflict is less about overcoming one’s big weakness and more about a battle being waged inside the character. To execute a great inner conflict, you want to give your character two opposing forces that are pulling at him. Luke Skywalker (as well as Darth Vader) is being pulled by both good and evil in Return of the Jedi. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver is trying to decide between being good or bad. A newly announced Andrew Garfield film is about a real estate agent who starts illegally kicking people out of their homes. He becomes rich doing so, but his conscience starts to eat at him. He’s conflicted with whether earning a living this way is the right thing (inner conflict).
Again, the advantage of adding an inner conflict is that you’re tackling a universal experience. We’re constantly dealing with our own conscience, with what’s right and wrong, being pulled in opposite directions. The most unsettled we tend to be in our lives is when we’re fighting these inner battles. It’s a very intense experience, and therefore we relate to and engage when we see a character going through the same.
Vices – Vices are often used incorrectly in screenplays, as many beginning writers believe that simply adding a drinking or drug addiction will give their character that elusive “depth” all these producers and agents talk about. 99 times out of 100, however, the characters unfortunate enough to be created this way feel cliché. Why? Because unless you’re exploring the vice in all its depth and complexity, it feels sprayed on, a false veneer hiding the fact that you don’t know how to build depth. A vice is the physical manifestation of an inner conflict. It’s drugs, food, alcohol, sex, gambling – any physical addiction your character can’t control.
In my experience, the only time vices truly add depth to characters is when the writer commits to them 100% – when they explore all the complexities and faults and issues and pitfalls and devastations that come with them. We saw it in Flight, we saw it in Leaving Las Vegas, we saw it in Half-Nelson, we even see it in The Dark Knight (The Joker’s vice is chaos). The screenplay almost has to be ABOUT the vice for it to truly resonate. Otherwise, if you’re just slapping it in there to try and make your character feel “deep,” it’s probably not going to work.
Fears – Fears are the last and typically weakest way to add depth to your character. The reason being, they’re surface level. Unlike a flaw, an inner conflict, or a vice, there isn’t a whole lot going on under the hood with a fear. Take Indiana Jones. His fear is snakes. Good for a chuckle, not much else. Or Brody from Jaws. He’s afraid of water. Cool for later when he must go into the ocean to kill the shark, but it doesn’t really add much depth to his character. Or Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. His fear is heights. Sets up a nifty little finale where he must climb up the building to get to Julia Roberts, but there’s never a moment in the film where we feel the depth of Richard Gere being afraid of heights. It’s just a cute little setup and payoff, as are all these examples.
Now this doesn’t mean you don’t want characters who are afraid in your screenplays. Fear is a very powerful emotion. And as you can see from the examples above, it’s a nice little addition to a character who already has depth. You just don’t want fear to be the only element of depth in your character. Any fear should be in addition to, not in place of, these options. The one exception is if the fear is integral to the storyline. For example, if your character was raped, and now they’re afraid to leave the house in fear of getting raped again, obviously the fear is adding depth to your character.
Moving forward, my suggestion for adding depth to your character would be to start with the character flaw. If a character flaw doesn’t feel right for that particular story (Hey, Ferris Bueller didn’t have a character flaw), move to inner conflict. If your character doesn’t seem like the kind of guy with a lot of internal strife going on (aka Seth Rogan’s character in Knocked Up), go with a vice. Only use fear as a last option or if it’s integral to the kind of story you’re telling. There are a few other things you can do to add depth (backstory, mystery, your character’s relationships with others), but for the most part, if you’re not using one of the four elements featured in this article, your character will feel flat (leading to the dreaded, “Your characters never POPPED off the page.”).
Also, it’s okay to mix and match these elements. It’s okay to give a character a flaw and a vice. Or a vice and an inner conflict. If you really commit to one of these elements, one is all you need, but I’ve seen plenty of characters that are battling two or even three of these things. My only advice, if you take that route, is to connect the elements so they feel organic, as opposed to mechanically adding multiple things because a screenwriting blog told you to. For example, if your character’s flaw is that they don’t think they’re worthy of having a boyfriend, an addiction (vice) to food could keep them overweight and unattractive and therefore allow them to perpetuate that belief.
Remember that the main reason readers label characters as “thin” is that there isn’t a lot going on with them. I read so many scripts where I don’t remember the characters five minutes after I finish because there WASN’T ANYTHING GOING ON UNDERNEATH THE SURFACE. These four options are the things you place underneath the surface. Because the characters now have something underneath them, by definition, they have DEPTH. And just like that, you’ve created a three-dimensional character.