Fourth Dimensional Writing

When I say, “the fourth dimension,” what images come to mind?  Hyperspheres, tesseracts, spacetime equations, quantum theory, or perhaps Doc Brown from the movie, Back to the Future, telling Marty, “You’re not thinking fourth dimensionally.”

Well, I think of writing.

One of the common things new writers are told (just after, “show, don’t tell”) is the famous, “write three dimensional characters.”  It makes some sense if you think about what that means.  Let’s step through the dimensions and see.

One dimension – a straight line or a character that only shows one aspect.  In a story that might be the waiter taking an order, or delivery person bringing a package.  The character is there for one purpose to move the plot in one direction – the needed food shows up, the unwanted interruption happens, or the forged passports arrive in a brown paper wrapper.  All we need to know about the character is the one thing.

Two dimensions – width and length in geometry – a simple, flat shape.  Perhaps a triangle, square or circle. This is a character who fits into the story; is predictable and often is a stereotype or archetype.  The character exists for the hero to interact with and does things, but we don’t really get to know them as people.  This might be a taxi driver who’s conversation gets our hero talking to reveal important plot information.  Perhaps it’s the doctor telling us how the murder victim died.  This 2D person is a minor part of the story.

Then there is the holy grail of the three-dimensional character.  Geometry class would be showing us cubes, spheres and cones.  English classes would talk about fully rounded characters.  These are people who have depth, feelings, history, are unpredictable and complex.  This is typically the story’s hero, protagonist or antagonist.  A 3D character adds details and layers to the story that in some cases don’t move the plot forward, but instead add a sense of reality or depth to the story.

That brings us to the fourth dimension.  Mathematically and geometrically difficult to describe and I won’t even try.  In popular writings the fourth dimension is often described as time.  The fourth dimension is watching a 3D object moving through time.  Likely not scientifically true, but in story telling the concept is useful. A 4D character is one who not only has width, height and depth but also changes over time.

A 4D character might be a soldier who at the beginning of the story is committed to the war, but by the end of the story has a change of heart (the opposite story line is also possible).  You might describe the young idealistic doctor early in the story then and show how the doctor transforms into the cynical old medic.  A 4D character is not constant in their reactions and over the arch of the story, changes. 

It’s possible for whole stories to be told in 4D.  Back to the Future is an example of that kind of story telling.  The ever popular Harry Potter stories are another example. Over the course of seven novels, Harry goes from innocent childhood to a battle weary youth to a hopeful young man.  A single well-rounded character moving through time – changing, growing, and becoming something other than his “under the cupboard” self.

My current work in progress is a 4D story and so far I am finding both fun and frustrating to write.  It’s fun to pick up an object and predict where it might be in five years.  A pencil will be shorter, a car dented, and a tree taller, but with people it’s not so easy.  Overcoming an obstacle might make one person stronger while it breaks the spirit of another.  When I envisioned my story it was a simple tale of a boy escaping a city and becoming a man.  Then I wondered how did a city come to exist that forced a boy to need to escape it?  That naturally flowed into the question, “What world does this new man find or build?”

The possibilities are endless when you can view a fully formed person over the span of a life time.

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7 thoughts on “Fourth Dimensional Writing

  1. What a great explanation. I have to say, Andrew, I’ve never seen writing this way, but you’re spot on. As I was reading the descriptions, characters popped into my head.

  2. Excellent post Andrew and one I find very useful to me at the moment. Many thanks all round.

  3. Andrew, this is a well considered article. You’ve nailed a description of the kinds of character building that identifies great writing and separates it from mediocre. And to have framed it within a mathematical model is genius. I’m going to look at my own main characters and see how they hold up to your standards.

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