Exploring Story Characters: Examples of Four Dimensional Characters

In previous blogs I have talked about creating dynamic story characters and how the best characters are those who are four dimensional. Characters are the most important narrative elements in the story-world, and the quality or appeal of a story depends on whether a character is flat or fully developed – in other words, four dimensional. We all have our favourite story character/s from a book or a film. Characters determine how we experience the story-world and they leave the greatest impression on our mind and heart after we have read a book or watched a film.

Creating characters can be compared to an artist when he starts to create a masterpiece. He starts off with an idea, then he begins to sketch a rough outline of a landscape or a portrait, and then he applies the paint layer by layer. The layering process is when the artwork really begins to come to life.

Creating four dimensional characters is very similar. As we sit at our computer or when we put pen to paper we dream up a character, and then we begin to jot down details about that character.

The Layering Process of Characterization

The layering process of characterization is as follows:

The first layer is the character’s physical description. The second layer is his personality and idiosyncrasies.  Once we have started to weave the story-world around that character, we can then add the final two layers: the third and fourth layer: observations from other characters, and the character’s interior world – his intimate thought-life. This final fourth layer reveals his worldview, his psychology. After this is complete, our character is now fully developed. He or she has been borne from the chrysalis of our imagination and they are now ready to have their journey shared on the screen or the page.

Sometimes creating dynamic and four dimensional characters can be challenging, so a great way to get started is to think about existing, well-known characters from books or films. Some of the characters below also cross over from a book to film.

Five of the best characters from books 

Anne from Anne of Green Gables
Alex Cross from the James Patterson book series
Sherlock Holmes
Jane Eyre
Tris Prior from the Divergent trilogy


Five of the best characters from films  

Frodo from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.
Superman from the Man of Steel film
Spiderman (the films with Tobey McGuire)
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader







How to Create Four Dimensional Story Characters


This week we are are exploring how to create four dimensional characters. Over the past month or so, I have been doing a series on the seven archetypal characters that exist in the narrative world. I just wanted to go a little deeper in relation to character creation as characters are the most important narrative elements in the storyworld. But the quality or appeal of a story depends on whether a character is flat or fully developed – or four dimensional.

As opposed to the visuality that is provided by television, theatre and film, a literary work is dependent on the skill of a writer to create dynamic ‘word pictures’ that describe the characters. As we only have the words on a page (except for digital storytelling) to offer our reader a mental picture of our characters, learning how to create four dimensional story characters is an essential strategy for writers.

Drawing upon Vladimir Propp and other narratology specialists, four dimensional characters are those who have a two-fold function within the narrative. They can be distinguished between: “an acteur” (actor) (Kozloff 1987, p. 53) – a specific individual with certain characteristics specific to him or her, (for example, the character Kramer in Seinfeld, he has a certain hairstyle and mannerisms or mode of behaviour that makes him unique), and their “actantal  function” (1987, p. 53) – their particular role in the narrative.

Just like the primary characters – the hero and the villain, and the secondary characters – aka the princess, the dispatcher, donor, helper and false hero – they are all defined by their individual “sphere of action” (Lacey 2000 p. 51).

Modern day characterisation is dependent upon characters that combine their “actantal” position or “sphere of action” (2000, p. 51) in the narrative as well as their individual characterisation and distinctive idiosyncrasies (modes of behaviour).

Creating four dimensional characters

Creating a character is like painting a picture. An artist begins with nothing but a blank white canvas. After a brainstorming session he begins with a rough sketch of the landscape or portrait, and slowly bit by bit he begins the more complex process of the careful application of paint or whatever art medium he chooses. Once this process is completed, the finished product is finally revealed.

No. 1. A character’s physical description

When we begin to plan our story in front of our computer screen or a blank sheet of paper, a detailed description of a character serves as the first step in the process of creating a character. Although story characters are primarily fictional, we want them to be as real as possible so that the reader can draw a parallel between the character and a real life person as a point of reference.

Details of a character’s physical appearance or style of clothing helps to create narrative interest. As we live in a visual culture, and in order to keep books alive, we need to provide our reader with a external description of the character to hold their attention. Also, providing a character’s description gives the reader a mental picture of the character and helps the reader to differentiate between characters.

No. 2. Characterisation: the personality of a character

Just like real people are often remembered by their distinctive personalities and odd idiosyncrasies, so are fictional characters. The villain is known for his manic or sadistic personality, and the hero is known for his brave and noble nature. But to go a step further – characters may have a distinctive way of speaking or they may display strange physical mannerisms – think of Han Solo as the easygoing and wise cracking pilot of the Millennium Falcon or Kramer in Seinfeld with his strange gesticulations.

No. 3. Characters do not exist in a narrative void

Most narratives have at least three characters and these characters do not exist in a narrative void. Like us, they interact with one another, and they provide observations about other characters.  The 90s sitcom Friends is a good example of character interaction, and The Lord of the Rings book and films.

Through character interaction we learn about a character’s perception of other characters and their interpersonal relationships provide the reader with that extra dimension. Characters do not just sprout sonnets or ramble on with meaningless dialogue, they reveal important secrets, they share knowledge and their words can influence our speech patterns –think of the plays of William Shakespeare or the almost immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films – “I’ll be back”.

No. 4. A character’s inner world

Just like in real life, the inner world of a character can remain much of a mystery. In the world of film or television, if we are not given any dialogue or a voice-over monologue, we can only surmise what characters are thinking by their facial expressions. Sometimes the camera will linger on an actor’s face and we as the voyeur are invited to try to discern what lies beneath. If the actor has considerable skill, discerning their secret thoughts is an easy job.

But when it comes to revealing the secret inner world of characters, I believe it is the humble book that is superior to other forms of storytelling media. A writer can utilize the techniques of a ‘internal monologue’ or ‘streams of consciousness’ – two invaluable tools that can provide intimate access to a character’s worldview, values, and thought life.

A snapshot of a four dimensional character. 

James Baldwin’s short story ‘Previous Condition’ provides a great example of how ‘streams of consciousness’ can give a reader intimate access into the heart and mind of a character. Through the main character, Peter, we have unmitigated access to his external and more importantly his interior world through his ‘streams of consciousness’ or ‘internal monologues’. We learn about his conflicted past as a child growing up in a poor African-American community and his fear and anger that is caused by the racial tension and discrimination of his present situation as a young out-of-work actor in 1950s New York.

A ‘flashback’ also serves as a conduit through which the reader perceives that Peter’s feelings have been simmering under the surface for some time. Peter is a ticking time bomb, and his repressed anger is ultimately externalized towards the end of story via his dialogue with his two friends, Jules and Ida. But the bulk of the story is limited to Peter’s perspective through his ‘internal monologues’. Many people would find this kind of storytelling boring and not very riveting. But Baldwin does it so well that he makes the reader feel as if they are right there in Peter’s tumultuous world and experiencing his claustrophobic and fear-driven existence.

See Baldwin’s story here:

The world of 21st century film and television provides us with a plethora of dynamic characters. Foxtel features the slogan ‘100% characters’  when they promote new and continuing programs. Australian ‘free-to-air’ television has also jumped on the ‘character bandwagon’ as Channel Nine’s digital channel GEM promotes itself as the place where great ‘Characters Belong’.

Other examples of four dimensional characters.

Characters like Inspector Lewis, Inspector Lynley or Hercule Poirot are good examples of four dimensional characters that have now become part of our popular culture. All of these characters have a backstory, distinctive personalities and appearances.

If you are an emerging or aspiring creative writer, a helpful learning task outlined below is to analyze a character when you reading about them in a book, or watching them on screen. Your characters are the lifeblood of your story and more often than not they are the narrative elements that will linger in your reader’s memory. One thing I can guarantee as a fellow storyteller, if you learn how to create four dimensional story characters – you will become a master of great storytelling!

Creative Exercise

Task 1

When you are reading a book or watching a film or a television program, start an analysis exercise.

What is the character’s role in the story?

What makes them distinctive – do they have a particular idiosyncrasy (mode of behaviour or mannerisms)?

How do you know what the characters are thinking – is there a ‘internal monologue’, or a voice over narration?

Are the characters flat and do not experience change or are they complex ‘four dimensional’ characters who undergo a transformation throughout the narrative?

Task 2

Write a short story with two or three characters. Use the four techniques mentioned in the blog above and create your own four dimensional characters. Create a backstory for them: their past, their personality or mannerisms, and their relationship with other characters.

Happy writing!




Baldwin, James 1948, ‘Previous Condition’, Understanding Fiction 2005, Roof, Judith, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York, pp. 164-175.

Kozloff, Sarah Ruth 1987, ‘Narrative Theory and Television’ in Robert C. Allen (ed.), Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism, Routledge, London.

Lacey, Nick 2000, Narrative and Genre: Key concepts in Media Studies, Houndmills: Macmillan.




How to Create Dynamic Secondary Story Characters: The Donor, the Dispatcher and the Helper

Over the last few weeks we have been learning about how to create dynamic story characters through brief character profiles. We started with the main characters – the Hero and the Villain and then moved onto the first of our secondary characters – the Princess

This week we will exploring the possibilities for the last of our archetypal characters as originally proposed by the Russian folklorist, Vladimir Propp – the Donor, the Dispatcher, and the Helper.

Although the Hero, the Villain and the Princess provide the main action in a story, the Donor, the Dispatcher and the Helper are indispensable elements in a narrative.  These story characters are especially important for our Hero. The Hero would not be able to embark upon his quest or successfully achieve his goal without these characters.

In a future blog, I will be exploring the role of characters even more in ‘How to create four dimensional characters’. As you can probably tell creating characters is one of my favourite aspects of storytelling. Whether we are reading a book or watching a film or a television show – great storytelling depends on dynamic characters.

So let us get back to creating a character profile/s for the Donor, Dispatcher and Helper.

Once more I am going to use a literature/filmic reference – The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) to explore these three character types.  LOTR is a good narrative to use for story character profiling as it provides us with a perfect example of how one character can play dual roles.  See Propp’s archetypal character list.

The Donor

The Donor is responsible for providing a magical agent to the hero before he embarks upon his quest.

The Donor in LOTR is the wizard – Gandalf the grey.  After finally succeeding in getting Bilbo to leave his “precious” ring behind before he leaves the Shire to journey to Rivendell, Gandalf gives this ring, which is the magical agent, to Frodo. But this magical agent harbors deadly magic – it originally belonged to the story’s villain – the dark lord, Sauron.   So we can see from this narrative that archetypal elements can take on variations.  LOTR also features more than one magical agent.  There are the elvish gifts that are given to Frodo: the sword that glows blue when Orcs are present, the silver ethereal vest, and The Light of Eärendil that is bestowed by Galadriel.

The Dispatcher

Gandalf also performs the role of the main Dispatcher as he sends Frodo on his mission. We could also include Strider/Aragorn, Elrond and Galadriel as dispatchers.

The Dispatcher has two functions.  He alerts the potential Hero to a grave misfortune or some sort of lack in their mutual world. The Dispatcher’s second function is to send the Hero on a mission or quest in order to resolve the original misfortune or lack.  Ultimately, the desire is to restore equilibrium to a world that is seriously out of balance or on the brink of destruction.

The Helper

The Helper’s job description is to inspire or motivate the Hero, provide rescue, help with or solve difficult tasks, and to transform the hero. Out of all these three characters, the Helper is the one character who is usually consistent throughout the narrative up until the conclusion of the story. And there can be multiple Helpers in a narrative.

In the LOTR films there are many Helpers.  Besides Boromir, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimili, and Arwen, there are also Frodo’s friends – the mischievous Merry and Pippin, and of course, the self sacrificing and loyal, Sam. With Merry and Pippin, we can see that sometimes the helpers can cause more trouble for the Hero than provide any actual help. But towards the end of the film franchise we see that Merry and Pippin redeem themselves and prove that they are indispensable to the story and more importantly to Frodo himself.

Here I have provided three brief character profiles for the Donor, the Dispatcher and the Helper.  For a more extensive outline of these archetypal characters and their broader narrative groups and place within a narrative, see John Fiske, 2010, Television culture.


Creative exercise

This week I have a creative exercise for you.

Watch ‘The Opera’ Season 4 episode from the Seinfeld series (you should be able to find it on YouTube). Or you can use any narrative that you familiar with. Analyze each of the characters. What are their functions within the narrative (hero, villain, princess etc.)?  Do they perform one or more function? Which is your favorite character and why?



Fiske John 2010, Television culture, 2nd edition, Routledge, New York, London.



Steve Czajka


How to Create Dynamic Secondary Characters: The Princess

Welcome Creative Destinationers!

This week’s blog will be a continuation of the series: How to create dynamic secondary characters. Last week we directed the narrative spotlight onto the False Hero. This week we will be exploring the creative possibilities for the Princess (the sought after character).

Just to give you a bit of fairy tale history. The princess in fairy tale storytelling has traditionally been represented as a passive female character who finds herself either trapped in a tower, poisoned by an evil witch or a victim of a deadly curse. Of course there are some exceptions to this fairy tale rule – We will explore this a little later.

Out of all the archetypal characters that exist in meta-narratives, it is the princess who has undergone somewhat of a dramatic transformation or reversal in modern-day narratives (predominately filmic narratives).

The ‘princess’ is of great significance to me as during my university journey I submitted a thesis/creative project that analyzed the true purpose behind many fairy tales, in particular, the Brothers Grimm tales. My discovery was that well-known fairy tales were originally designed as literary commentaries on social-political issues at the time of their creation.

My project also explored transgressive tales by authors like Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood, whose work challenged archetypal fairy tale gender roles and traditional story telling techniques. If you wish to view the essay, click here: Creative project essay for Creative Destination

As part of the Creative Project, I submitted a short story called ‘Sisters’, which is now a short screenplay, Trafficked. This short story was designed to be a provocative social commentary on the ‘Human Trafficking‘ trade.

The characterization in ‘Sisters’ was also designed to challenge archetypal representations of female roles in literature. The main character, Rose, is transformed from a passive recipient of the action into an active princess who sets out to rescue her sister, Lily.  ‘Sisters’ will also be available in the Tales for the Sisterhood short story collection – so stay tuned!!

In modern-day narratives, we see that many female characters, especially in film, are designed to defy traditional audience expectations of gender roles.  In books, films and video games, we are encountering female characters who are not always reliant on being rescued by a prince, and many times, they dominate much of the action on screen. Think Charlie’s Angels or Kill Bill or Tomb Raider.


Character profiles of the princess in traditional fairy tales.

The damsel in distress.

In this representation, the hero sets out on his quest, and encounters a damsel/princess in distress.  He rescues her from an evil witch who has either kept her captive in a tower or has cast a spell that causes the hapless princess to sleep for a hundred years.

The sought after princess.

In many fairy tale representations a conflicted princess is also the instigator of the hero’s quest.

* The rebellious and sacrificial princess.

The magical world of Walt Disney has presented us with some ground-breaking examples of rebellious princesses – the love-struck mermaid, Arial, who disobeys her father, King Triton, in ‘The Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Andersen.

The Bold and the Brave Princess.

In the French fairy tale, ‘The Beauty and the Beast’, the pure-in-heart Beauty or Belle in the Disney animated creation, sets out to rescue her father from a terrifying Beast who lives in a cursed castle. And of course we know the end of the story – Beauty’s magical tears transform the Beast back into his true self – the prince. A great example of an active fairy tale princess!


The character profile of the princess in modern day narratives:

The princess in a romantic comedy.

The Princess is the love interest who is pursued by her admirer or love-struck hero. There are challenges to their love, or the princess continually rejects the hero until he finally wins her over. Ultimately they receive their happy ending.

The Princess/Heroine.

The princess is a passive recipient of tragedy or some type of injustice, but she rises to the challenge, either by herself, or she joins with the hero – like a crime fighting team. Here we can see Propp’s archetypal switch happening – the princess becomes the heroine. Think: Cinderella/Drew Barrymore in Ever After or Batgirl/Alicia Silverstone in Batman and Robin.

For us girls, the Princess/Heroine is a major draw-card in mass media representations, as it can inspire us to take up the challenge of being the heroine of our own story.

Radical shifts in female characterization provide the princess with an opportunity to take control of the narrative and embark on a quest to free herself and others from cultural and socio-political dis-empowerment.

Of course that does not mean that the prince/hero is dis-empowered, but both the prince/hero and the princess/heroine play an important role in fictional storytelling, and also in real life.

More examples of modern day princesses.

Ripley in the Alien film franchise, especially the first two films. Ripley was the last woman standing among all the well trained gun-toting marines, and she was transformed into an almost indestructible fighting machine. She is considered to be a ground-breaking character for women in film.

The Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, has become an iconic symbol of bravery and courage for young women. She is a prime example of how one person can stand up against injustice and inspire others to do the same.

Just like the hero, the princess can provide a fictional conduit through which we can see evil defeated and justice prevail. Of course, fictional characters pale in comparison to real life heroes who display courage in the face of hardship and disaster.

These story character profiles show the shift from traditional representations of the archetypal entrapped princess to a dynamic active character in the story world.

Next week: We will be exploring the rest of the secondary characters: the donor, the dispatcher and the helper.


Also stay cybered for future posts:

1 – Creating four dimensional characters.

2 – ‘Writers’ Block’ – What is it and can it be cured?

3 – Writing the screenplay.


Happy Writing!



Fiske John 2002, Television culture, 2nd edition, Routledge, New York, London.

Carter, Angela 2006, The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories, Vintage, London.

Zipes, J D 2002, Breaking the Magic Spell : Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, 2nd Edn, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, USA



‘Just a bit of fun with the princesses’
by becky.

How to Create a Dynamic Character Profile

A few weeks ago, I provided some tips on how to create and develop the role of storyworld characters. As writers, characters deserve our full attention as they are the active agents that drive a story’s plot forward. They can function as either a ‘character- focalizer’ (a narrative participant) or as a ‘narrator-focalizer’ (an outside observer who knows everything about the characters) (Culler 1997, p. 90).

Whatever their role, characters give us a front row seat for all the action. If we are reading a short story or novel, the characters provide us with an intimate view into their thoughts and feelings via their ‘streams of consciousness’.

We have also learned some of the basic techniques for creating the storyworld’s most important characters – the hero and the villain. This week we will be exploring secondary characters and their narrative function.  And I will deliver some tips on how to create a dynamic character profile for a False Hero.

The function of secondary characters.

As we ready know, stories are usually centered around the hero, so the secondary characters function as an extension of the hero’s universe. The villain opposes the hero. The secondary characters provide help for the hero. But not always! If you are writing a comedy screenplay, chances are you might have a bumbling chaos-causing side-kick character who causes more problems for the hero than helping him.

In filmmaking, the sidekick can sometimes be turned into a worthy helpmate towards the end of the film. So this kind of character is well worth considering. Can you think of any books or films with this kind of character profile?

All of these rules about writing and story-world character creation may come across as being rigid and not allowing room for unbridled creativity. You may be thinking – creativity is all about letting your mind run wild and free, isn’t? Why can’t I just sit at my notepad, computer, or iPad and just for go for it?

Yes, absolutely you can do all these things! But the writing mantra has always been – once you know the literary rules that govern the story-world, then you can be brave and break them! An example of breaking the rules would be to turn the hero’s helper into a character who causes more trouble for the hero.  Remember the bumbling, chaos-causing side-kicks in Seinfeld – George or Kramer.

I believe that if you learn these basic rules, then you are on your way to becoming a better writer. I also encourage you to explore the world of narratology as much as possible. Especially if you want to take your writing to the professional level.  Learn from the experts such as: Robert McKee, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell…

And become a reader too. Reading will expand your imagination, teach you about the beauty of language – and help you grow as a writer. My purpose at Creative is to help you develop as a storyteller. I am on a creative journey too and there is always something new to learn.

So let us start exploring our secondary characters a little more.

Seven archetypal characters.

In a previous blog, I mentioned that the story-world consists of seven archetypal characters as outlined by the Russian folklorist, Vladimir Propp. Here are Propp’s conclusions:

1. Functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale.

2. The number of functions known to the fairy-tale is limited.

3. The sequence of functions is always identical.

4. All fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure. *

* (Propp in Turner 1988, p. 69)

It is also important to remember that for modern-day storytellers these character types continue to remain stable and constant regardless of the setting or time period. But not all of these characters will be present in a narrative. And although all of these archetypal characters have distinctive functions, some of these roles can be played by more than one character such as the False Hero.

Here are the seven archetypes as identified by Propp:

The hero
The false hero
The donor (or provider)
The helper/s
The princess (or sought after person) (sometimes accompanied by her father)
The dispatcher (the person who sends the hero on his journey)
The villain

As we have already directed the spotlight onto our primary story characters, the Hero and the Villain, they can just hang out in the ‘green room’ for now.

Here are the archetypes we will be concentrating on over the next couple of weeks:

1. The donor
2. The helper
3. The princess (the sought after person)
4. The dispatcher – the person who sends the hero on his journey.
5. The false hero.

You have probably noticed that I have been using the mediums of filmmaking and television to predominately draw my story examples from. Of course, there are many great examples in literature, but I think both filmmaking and television have a greater potential for a global story saturation. And most of us are familiar with film and television references.

So now I am going to use the Star Wars saga to flesh out these characters in a modern setting.

The hero – Luke Skywalker
The false hero – Darth Vader
The donor – Obiwan Kenobi
The helper – Han Solo
The princess – Princess Leia
The dispatcher – R2D2
The villain – Darth Vader

This week I have chosen ‘The false hero’ for our secondary character profile.

From the Star Wars franchise, we have seen the development of the Darth Vader character, from the conflicted and misguided ‘false hero’ Anakin Skywalker, to his evolution as the villain. As a little boy, he was innocent and sweet and had a tragic life, and we felt for him, and we looked forward to his bright future as a light saber extraordinaire – the Jedi Knight. But alas, we were very much mistaken, or at least some of us tried to be shocked and dismayed at Anakin’s descent into darkness – after the considerable gap between the films. But Anakin was the false hero and it was his son, Luke, who would be the real hero. What is your view here? Do you think it is possible to have two heroes?

Another example of a false hero is the well known classic story that has also made a billion dollar crossover to a film franchise – The Lord of the Rings. Who is the false hero in this narrative? You may not agree, but I reckon it is Gollum. Before he became the wretched and ring-obsessed pathetic creature, Gollum, he was just a normal hobbit who had discovered a magic ring, not dissimilar to Bilbo and Frodo. But once the ring had consumed him with evil, he became a false hero, and in some ways a villain as well. Of course, he could have been the hero of the story, like Frodo, but his choice relegated him to the role of the false hero.

Just like the real hero, the false hero will have a journey to take and a choice to make. But he will falter in his journey, therefore allowing the real hero to step up.

Sometimes the false hero is used as a ‘red herring’ or as a clever narrative device to misguide the reader or viewer and to keep them guessing.

So we can see from this brief character portrait that although these character functions “serve as stable, constant elements in a tale” (Propp in Turner 1988, p. 60), some of these fictional characters can develop a dual/split personality, so to speak. For information on Propp’s archetypal characters see Graeme Turner: Film as Social Practice – available on Amazon Books.


Next Week: We are going to talk about the role of the ‘princess’ or love interest. This will be an interesting character to explore as the ‘princess’ in traditional storytelling, especially in the fairy tale, has been presented as a passive observer of the action, and more often than not – the passive receiver of the action. But this role has changed. Many thanks to Sigourney Weaver from Aliens, and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games.

Happy writing!



Culler, Jonathan 1997, Literary Theory, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford. New York: Oxford University Press.

Turner, Graeme 1988 ‘Film Narrative’, Film as Social Practice, Routledge, London.



Source: Reddit.com