What the Heck is a One-Dimensional Character?

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

Characters come in many shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and personalities. Some drive your story forward, others serve a single, momentary purpose. Some will linger with your character long after the last page.

The best characters are complex, full of history, and make your readers believe they’re living, breathing people (or whatever monster species you’re writing about). But there are other characters that aren’t that complicated or deep.

We call these folks “one-dimensional characters.”

Are one-dimensional characters bad, though? Do they have a purpose? And how can you make them into those coveted three-dimensional characters?

Don’t worry, good author, we’re going to answer all of those questions in this article. 

What is a One-Dimensional Character?

Let’s establish a more thorough definition of a one-dimensional character.

A one-dimensional character, also known as a flat character, lacks depth and doesn’t change throughout the story. These characters usually have a specific role to play within your story, so you write them in, get the job done, and then the characters move on with their fictional lives.

We said the best characters are complex and three-dimensional. That means writing one-dimensional characters carries the risk of creating boring, unrelatable people that annoy your readers.

But sometimes a one-dimensional character is exactly what you need in a story.

The Role of a One-Dimensional Character

For the most part, your main characters (protagonists and antagonists) won’t be one-dimensional—though we’ll look at some of those examples a bit later.

Instead, you might want to write a one-dimensional character to accomplish any of the following:

  • Breathe life into your world (i.e., the cabbage vendor from Avatar: The Last Airbender)
  • Push the story further (by revealing a clue, sharing information, being a victim to the villain, etc.)
  • Highlight a trait of another main character (i.e., someone who laughs at an old woman crossing the street vs. our protagonist helping that same woman with her groceries)
  • Support another character on their own journey (as a sidekick, mentor, rival, etc.)

To accomplish any of these, we should look at the different one-dimensional options you can add to your author repertoire.

Types of One-Dimensional Characters

There are some one-dimensional characters you can write into your story that will actually make it better. Like all things in the writing world, it’s how you implement these characters that will make or break your story.

Stock characters - These one-dimensional characters have basically one or two traits and little more. However, these traits make their role and personality known immediately. My favorite example is a strict librarian.

Archetypes - These have more traits than stock characters, but they have a specific collection of flaws, motivations, and skills that make them easily identifiable across cultures and time periods. Archetypes can be one-dimensional or a framework to build a fleshed out character. Check out the first part of our archetype masterclass here.

Static characters - Maybe you have a secondary character that has something of a background, maybe even a goal, but still experiences a flat character arc. If your character stays the same but still contributes to the story, they can still be an effective static character.

How to Transform One-Dimensional Characters

While one-dimensional characters have their place in writing, you don’t want them everywhere. If a beta reader or editor comments that your main character feels too one-dimensional, you’re going to want to revisit them and add some more depth and flavor.

How do you do that? Well, we have a whole guide to crafting complex characters you can read right here.

But if you want a crash course, here’s a crash course:

Step One: Give them a backstory - Your character’s life didn’t start in the first paragraph you write about them. I mean, maybe it did if that’s where you’re starting the story, but that won’t be the case most of the time. Figure out what their story before the story is and incorporate it into their journey. Tip: Interview your character.

Step Two: Give them goals - What does your character want to accomplish? There’s a reason they’re going through the struggles of your story, even if they aren’t the main character. More importantly, why does your character want to accomplish these goals? If their motivation doesn’t make sense, your made-up person won’t feel real. Tip: Become a motivation expert.

Step Three: Give them flaws - No one likes a perfect character. Flaws let your character make mistakes, butt heads, and provides something for them to work towards or fall victim to. No memorable character was without flaws, so think about ways you can make yours a little less perfect. Tip: Check out all these flaws.

Step Four: Give them conflicts - Conflicts come in two forms: external and internal. External conflicts are usually tied to the plot, while internal conflicts are tied to the character themselves. The best stories tie these two conflicts together to put your character in uncomfortable positions, give them adversaries, and make life extra difficult. Tip: Don’t be conflicted about writing conflict.

Step Five: Give them room for growth - The key to a one-dimensional character is their lack of change. They don’t grow or fall. All they do is exist. But working through steps one through four of this crash course means they have something to work towards, obstacles, and internal shortcomings. You’ve set them up for growth, so take advantage of it. Tip: Become a character arc pro.

Creating a memorable character with depth isn’t easy! They require work to bring to life, but are well worth it. If that’s what you need.

I want to reiterate, though, that you don’t need every character to be three-dimensional. Don’t spend all that time understanding the deep, dark psyche of a character that has two lines or only shows up in a couple of scenes.

Not convinced? Let’s look at a few one-dimensional characters you might recognize.

Examples of One-Dimensional Characters

Just a heads up, these examples are protagonists and antagonists from movies. It’s a lot easier to get away with one-dimensional main characters in a 90-minute film. It’s a heck of a lot harder to carry one through an 80,000-word book.

Still, take a look at these one-dimensional stars and understand why they work without being three-dimensional.

Most Marvel villains are one-dimensional. Yes, there are exceptions (Thanos, Killmonger, Ghost, etc.), but comic villains have traditionally been flat. They’re evil because they want power, to rule the world/universe, want revenge, etc. They have a goal, but usually lack motivation and, most importantly, room for growth or descent. 

Forrest Gump is beloved for his unending optimism, but that’s most of what his character is. The other characters and shocking number of famous events he’s present for become supports or juxtapositions for his glass-all-the-way-full attitude, but none of it really makes him grow. 

Indiana Jones is another character loved by households around the world. He’s a whip-wielding relic hunter who lives for adventure. And that’s it. His character gives us the adrenaline-filled epics we love to watch, but Jones doesn’t change because his audience doesn’t need him to.

By no means do I think these characters are bad. I don’t even think most of them should be three-dimensional, because they’re written so well.

But including a one-dimensional character in anything but a tertiary role is a bold move. If you’re thinking about including these flat characters as secondary or main characters, be objective with yourself, seek feedback, and make sure they’re best for your story and your readers.

Stormtroopers are one-dimensional characters that serve a purpose.

Make Killer Characters, Regardless of Dimensions

Like we said at the beginning, one-dimensional characters are just one tool in your toolkit. You can use them effectively in your writing, but only if they’re complemented by other characters, a strong plot, good themes, solid prose, and so much more.

If you’re looking to up your character-writing game, I suggest starting with all the free articles we have over at DabbleU.

A story is nothing without a solid cast, so getting your characters right is a must. Make them live inside your reader’s head for months, even years later. 

When you’re ready to bring them to life, why not use a novel-writing platform that is made specifically for fiction writers? Dabble has all the tools you need to write a great book with a clean, modern interface and automatic cloud syncing on any device.

Honestly, it’s the three-dimensional character of writing programs. And you can try it for fourteen days for free, no credit card required, by clicking here.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.