Notes From Babel

Words that Mean the Same Thing: “One-Dimensional” and “Two-Dimensional”

with 4 comments

What is another way of describing a flat character in a work of fiction?  Would you call this a “one-dimensional character,” or a “two-dimensional character”?  Before you answer, consider what it is you are seeking to describe—a character with only a single quality, with a single purpose in the story.  This would suggest we are describing a character with but one dimension, and thus, a one-dimensional character.

But consider further:  Is not what we are seeking to describe a “flat” character who lacks depth, as a sketch drawn on a two-dimensional plane, as in a geometric sense?  In other words, a character who is less than real, fully formed, or three-dimensional?  In this sense, it would seem the word we want to describe our character is two-dimensional.

Like other examples discussed here, here, and here, both of these analyses are correct. Merriam-Webster defines one-dimensional as follows:

1 : having one dimension
2 : lacking depth : superficial <one–dimensional characters>

Now note its similarity to the definition of two-dimensional:

1 : of, relating to, or having two dimensions
2 : lacking the illusion of depth : not three-dimensional
3 : lacking depth of characterization <two–dimensional characters>

Google searches for “one dimensional character” and “two dimensional character” return roughly the same number of results:  658,000 and 644,000, respectively.

In pursuit of clarity in speaking, there are more good reasons to prefer “one-dimensional.”  First, the obvious:  when we say two-dimensional, the first word that comes at us is “two,” as in, “more than one.”  Thus, the concept our poor misled listener may be left with is “multi-dimensional,” obviously not the idea we want to communicate.  We thus risk confusing the listener to whom we want to convey the principal message of singularity about the purpose and nature of the thing we are describing.  One should keep in mind the following concept well-expressed by Herbert Spencer:

A reader or listener has at each moment but a limited amount of mental power available.  To recognize and interpret the symbols presented to him, requires part of this power; to arrange and combine the images suggested requires a further part; and only that part which remains can be used for realizing the thought conveyed.  Hence, the more time and attention it takes to receive and understand each sentence, the less time and attention can be given to the contained idea; and the less vividly will that idea be conveyed.

Second, it is less than clear that we have geometry in mind when we talk about a thing we want to characterize as flat or static.  This article talks about fictional characters in terms of “2D” and “3D.”  But to my understanding, this is not the typical way of describing character in literature.  It sounds instead like borrowed terminology from our technology culture, in which we are growing accustomed to “3D” movies and video games.  Applied to literature, character development, or other uses, however, the application is limited and possibly misleading.

Finally, there is no reason the term “dimension” is limited to a spatial meaning—the word can just as well refer to “quality” or “attribute.”  See Merriam-Webster’s definition.  It would be a stingy use of language to purport to limit the word only to the sense in which it might describe X, Y, and Z axes.

Of course, it is always true that, in the pursuit of clarity, you may incur chortles and raised eyebrows by language snoots who are convinced “two-dimensional” is the proper way to convey “flatness” of character.  If you are the sort who is overcome by fear both of snoots and of imprecision, I would prescribe simply to avoid either term, and employ “flat” instead, even if much more drab.  But, if you are thrice overcome by fear—of snoots, imprecision, and drabness—then I’m afraid there is nothing left to offer you but supplication.


Written by Tim Kowal

December 2, 2010 at 12:15 am

4 Responses

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  1. That is a lot of (metaphorical) ink spilled in the service of propping up your incorrect position. And the link to Merriam clearly demonstrates the more popular meaning of dimension relates to space. Ultimately, your argument boils down to: people are too ignorant to understand what two-dimensional actually means so let us use the term one-dimensional so as not to confuse them. Where do we draw the line on that type of reasoning? Where?


    December 2, 2010 at 11:25 am

  2. Actually, to describe abstract (rather than extended) characteristics, “one-dimensional” is the more literal meaning. If we are to describe a character is “two-dimensional,” we are using a metaphor of either something in geometric theory, or from physical, extended space, and asking the listener to apply it to a characteristic of someone’s personality, etc. That is a lot of mental gymnastics, and certainly not intuitive for many people. Definition 1.c. of the Merriam entry for “dimension” is “a lifelike or realistic quality.” Thus, there is an accepted, official meaning of the word that precisely correlates to what we want to convey about a “flat” or “static” character, which warrants such a character be described as “one-dimensional.”

    Tim Kowal

    December 2, 2010 at 11:38 am

  3. There you go again, bemoaning how the dullards would not be able to understand the concept of two-dimensional. I won’t play in that sandbox.

    So, putting aside your “won’t someone think about the ignorant” argument, your own words betray you. You keep going back to “flat.” Flat means lacking depth. A two-dimensional object is defined by having a height and width but no depth.

    It seems to me, the source of your error is your desire to make “dimension” a synonym for personality-trait; i.e., a one-dimensional character has only one protrayed personality-trait. But “flat” characters can have more than one personality-trait. Let’s look at the Modern Family kids; all flat characters. Luke is dumb and sweet. Hayley is pretty, dumb, and narcissistic. Alex is smart and witty. So your defense of one-dimensional based on this flawed assumption falls flat (pun intended).

    Finally, in the context of the Merriam definition, doesn’t 1c relate to the physical appearance of the object, not its personality.


    December 2, 2010 at 12:48 pm

  4. Hmmn…it looks like Ted is one of those language snoots.

    Shawna Faye

    December 3, 2010 at 11:53 am

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