Firefly Friday – The Three Dimensions of Character

Welcome to a new installment of Firefly Friday, where we examine a writing tip chestnut and marry it to my favorite TV show Firefly to illustrate it. Today’s topic: The Three Dimensions of Character. I haven’t done one of these since last November, but I thought this tip was shown so well in several instances in Firefly that I’d resurrect this feature.

I’m in the middle of digesting Larry Brook’s awesome book on writing called Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. It’s chock full of great advice that has frankly made my brain hum (in a good way). One of the 6 core competencies that he says a successful writer needs to grasp is character.

Yeah, yeah, I hear ya. Every craft book talks about character. But, like everything else he covers, he takes you deeper. One of the aspects of character development he talks about is the three dimensions of character, and if you think this is just your standard ‘make your character three dimensional’ advice, think again. I’ll give a quick overview (you’ll need to get his book to get the full details) and then give examples from Firefly. 

He says that all characters, like people in real life, have three dimensions, or aspects.

  1. First Dimension – Surface traits, quirks, and habits. These are things the world sees about this person, which may or may not be what the person thinks it says about them. It’s the person’s outward identity. In fiction, a writer can show aspects of a person’s character (what they drive, what they eat, etc) and a reader may or may not assign meaning to it. The reason it’s not good as a writer to stop here for main characters is that illuminating a character’s first dimension does not tell us his true self. (Firefly fans can already probably guess an example I will use). Anyway, it could all be a smoke screen.  If, however, as a writer, you show the meaning behind these outward traits, you’ve now crossed into the
  2. Second Dimension – The realm of backstory and inner demons.  In this dimension, the writer gives the backstory, agenda and/or meaning behind the surface traits, and what the reader assumed might be totally different. It adds depth to the character. It’s their inner landscape. It’s all the juicy backstory stuff that prompts, explains, and motivates the character’s first dimension choices of identity. First dimension is what you see– a guy with a tattoo. Second dimension is why he has that tattoo. Illuminating the second dimension creates reader empathy.
  3. Third Dimension – Where the true character emerges through choices made when something is at stake. Basically, when push comes to shove, just who is this guy? The true character is not defined by their inner demons and/or backstory until the character does something under pressure, which exposes who they truly are (good or bad). Usually in fiction, this decision comes at the end to show the character’s arc. It’s what shows the character as a villain or hero. A villain will continue to define himself by his backstory, while a hero will overcome it.

Okay, now for the fun part–giving examples from Firefly! The first example is from the episode “The Train Job” which FOX aired as the pilot. The premise is that the crew of the ship is hired by an underworld criminal to heist goods from a moving train. The captain doesn’t really care what it is, as long as the job’s done and they get paid. But when the heist hits an obstacle, and he learns that the goods are invaluable medical supplies the citizens of the planet are in desperate need of? His choice illuminates his true self. To relate it to the 3 dimensions, you could have two captains with the same quirks and traits, same background to explain them (on the losing side of a civil war, living on the edge of civilization scraping by), but each now has the same choice. Same 1st and 2nd dimension stuff, but one could choose to finish the job (and justify it in their mind) and the other could choose to return it. What does Captain Reynolds do? His answer beautifully illustrates what we’re talking about (9:24 to 10:30 on the timestamp):

The pertinent quote here:

Sheriff: A man can get a job, he might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well, then he has a choice.

Captain Reynolds: I don’t believe he does

To the captain, his belief that a man doesn’t have a choice when faced with such a moral issue is his true nature. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the only thing. Another captain with the same traits and backstory might not have agreed.

This episode ties in nicely to the next example. The underworld criminal, not too happy with Captain Reynolds’ decision, gets his revenge in a later episode called “War Stories.” The villain, Niska, is a sick bastard, who follows the teachings of warrior-poet Xiang Yu. Niska loves to torture people because he believes it’s the only way to see their true selves. This whole episode becomes a demonstration of illuminating the 3rd dimension for many of the characters. For Captain Reynolds and his pilot, Wash, it is illuminated in how they react to Niska’s torture. Theirs is the biggest illumination of character in this episode, but some of the others get some too. In this episode, each has a choice about what to do now that their captain is captured. Each decides to rescue him, and in their own unique ways:

  • Shepherd Book, their man of the cloth, when asked about using a gun quips that the Bible is fuzzy on the subject of kneecaps
  • Kaylee, the engineer, discovers that she doesn’t have the fortitude to shoot anyone when their fall back position is overrun.
  • River, for the first time, shows a scary side of her abilities when she rescues Kaylee (twist here though is that her 2nd dimension backstory here gives her no option but to react this way)
  • Even the mercenary Jayne joins in (though it could be argued that even though he’s doing it for no money, he’s still operating between his 1st and 2nd dimension, since he also just likes a good fight)

The clip I’ve isolated (11 minutes) is a good example since it shows all of this and has the dialogue about ‘meeting the real me’. For those that don’t know the characters, this starts off with Wash, who up until this point in the season has been the never-been-violent, fun-loving pilot. His wife (who is a warrior) has just rescued him from a horrific torture session when this scene begins, leaving Captain Mal Reynolds behind. She also had a choice to make when she went in to ransom them, the captain or her husband, and she chose her husband (28:00 to 39:23):

And finally, the whole movie Serenity is the character arc of Captain Reynolds and River being resolved. For Captain Reynolds, until this movie, we never got to see what he’d be like when he was ‘at war’ and what kind of moral choice he’d make on something huge. His choice caused the death of two of his friends, but I believe his resolving that part of himself is why Inara is finally able to stay on the ship and explore a possible relationship with him. She needed to see his true self.

What do you think? Have you read Brooks’ book? Does this make sense? Fan of the show? Have you learned any good lessons from the show I haven’t covered?