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A good well-written three dimensional character requires a lot of work. You need to really show them through their ups and their downs. You have to flesh out their strengths and weaknesses. You have to get to know them. I often find myself developing backstory that I never share with the reader but that exists because I need to know them better in order to know how they will act in the story. For this reason I am not necessarily eager to flesh out every character I put into a story.

Not only is it a lot of work but sometimes an archetype can be useful as a symbol. When a character is meant more as a foil, or as exposition, or some symbol of deeper meaning, then sometimes having them take the archetypal form is the right way to do it. As useful as it is though it is rare that making the archetype multi-dimensional would be problematic or wrong.

But how do I know when a character has grown beyond being one-dimensional? Is there a percentage of the story that they are present for? Is it the role they play? Protagonist? Antagonist? Foil?

As of right now I currently use feel to decide if a character is important enough or meaningful enough. Surely there is a better way. Some metric or rule of thumb I'm not really considering?

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Personally, I go by the number of scenes they are in. Basically:

  1. If they are in one scene, and neither mentioned or seen after that, they are one dimensional. They may not even have a name. Now, one-dimensional doesn't mean I can't describe them. My MC may see the young waitress flirting with the young guy at the counter. The waitress may be funny, or when my MC orders may grimace as if in pain and shake her head, warning the MC away from a dish. One dimensional does not mean she cannot be humanized, it means she exists only in this moment, as a waitress, and we don't delve into her past or future.

  2. If they are in one scene and either appear or are referred to in a later scene, they are two-dimensional; meaning I will make them (in their first appearance) somehow memorable or interesting to the MC. I don't know how; that will require imagination. At minimum they will have a name the MC will remember. Preferably they will be connected to the MC's quest in some way. And probably they will have some past (i.e. something they have been doing, or a story of what they have been through) and/or some future (plans, destination, mission, whatever). I want the reader to remember the character for their later reference or appearance. But they don't need a full-blown history, emotions, etc. Two-dimensional is like a cardboard cutout, which can be a recognizable and memorable character, but we don't need a deep background for this character.

  3. If they appear (or are referenced) in three or more distinct scenes, I want them to be three dimensional characters. I make exceptions to this rule if their appearances are all scenes in a row: If the character is not going to be seen or referenced after those scenes, they likely remain a 2-d character. I expect the reader to remember them from the previous scene. For example, this might be true of a guard the MC is bribing, or an office worker she is paying for inside information.

  4. Exceptions: I agree with your (OP) sentiment about showing ups and downs in a person's life to flesh them out, showing them in various circumstances. If there just isn't room in the narrative to cram that stuff in for a character, lower the dimensionality of the character, regardless of how often they appear. The 1-2-3 above is more of a guideline to tell you when you should be thinking about upping the dimensionality, or when the reader might be dissatisfied with your portrayal of character.

Readers do not mind walk-ons, IRL there can be literally hundreds of silent walk-on characters we pass by without a thought while navigating the city for business or even just going to lunch, and in a normal day we may speak with a dozen people for the first and only time in our lives. They don't mind 2-D characters either; don't get bogged down in them. We've all had classmates and office-mates we knew for years, and had many conversations with, without "getting to know them" at any more than a superficial level.

Going by "feel" is not a bad way of doing it, the only thing to guard against is pointless exposition about a wonderful character that does not do anything for your plot or entertainment value or MC character growth. Make sure you are not writing just to entertain yourself with making up an interesting character that doesn't go on to actually do anything important. You need to entertain the reader, and stalling the story to digress on such a character is going to confuse them, not entertain them.

I can engineer spending four pages with my MC and the waitress in conversation, fleshing out the waitress's life and making her feel real. But if I do that the reader expects the waitress to appear again, to play some role. If I walk away from her and she never appears again the reader wonders what the hell that was all about.

So the more general rule is this: When you start fleshing out a character, you have begun a character arc for them, at least a partial arc. So make sure they have some role in the MC's future and in how the story resolves. How much arc you describe for them should be proportional to the influence of that role. No influence=walk on character. Some influence = 2-D character. Big influence = 3-D character.

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Always

This is somewhat of a frame challenge, but hear me out. You said:

I need to know them better in order to know how they will act in the story

Why is this any less true for minor characters than it is for main characters?

Archetypes are useful for outlining the defining features of a character. Their major traits and ideals. They don't give their personality, speech patterns, pet peeves, flaws or all the other minor details that make a character feel real. If you want a character make a character, not an archetype.

This may sound like a lot of work, however it doesn't have to be do bad. Not every actor in your story is a character. Some are extras, set dressing, scenery. The guy the MC buys a train ticker from is scenery. They don't need a name or a character. If you feel they have enough interaction to need a name, they are a character.

I would suggest finding a lower effort way of getting to know characters. A character discovery process that you can stop early for minor characters and continue on for the major ones. There is a lot of middle ground between archetype and fleshed out character. Work on creating your minor characters in that space.

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