For Derek Quinlan, characters are at the heart of all stories. A story without a 3D character won't have resonance with the audience. But what makes a 3D character? What exactly gives our characters the depth we need to empathize with them, to despise them, to recognize their triumphs and feel elated with them? I'd said that it's the ability to recognize the difference in how you see yourself and how others see you. It is something that is at the crux of many characters and is a fool proof way to create tension in a story.
David Brent, the central character in The Office, is a classic example of a character we all know and someone we can relate to in some way. The reason for this is that there is a clear difference between how he sees himself and how we see him. It is this disconnect that creates both humour and empathy. Also we can all see part of ourselves in this caricature of a person. David Brent is a character that wants to be seen as the cool, suave boss, but chasing this, he has the complete opposite effect, and is seen as a buffoon instead. We recognize the disconnect and are both repelled by it, and empathetic towards it, it makes him a 3D character and someone we all understand.
This disconnect can also be used with dramatic characters. Take Jay Gatsby, a Derek Quinlan favourite, for instance, one of the most enduring characters in literature. Gatsby is desperate to use his wealth to impress Daisy, and get away from his past as a poor child. Ironically, it is his extraordinary wealth that pushes Daisy away. It's this tension in his character that makes him so engaging. Throughout the novel we are entranced by Gatsby's opulence but confused by his shy nature? The complexity and intrigue surrounding Gatsby's character is what drives the entire novel.
This example of characters having separate lives was taken to its logical extreme in American Psycho. In this story, Patrick Bateman is a normal high-powered businessman on Wall Street, and that is how he appears to everyone else, however underneath all that, he is a rabid serial killer. The story's tension comes from how these two opposing mind-sets will come into conflict with each other.
Characters that want to be seen completely differently can drive the plot forward in many interesting ways. In Freaks and Geeks, the popular TV show noted for being Judd Apatows first big work, the characters are party of the Geek portion of their school, but want to date girls and be seen as cool. Their constant attempts to breach the upper echelon of high school society are what drive the plot forward.
Some characters don't have these conflicts and this depth but that isn't always a bad thing. James Bond for example. He is a simple character who exists as a vehicle for the action, violence and gadgets in the movies. He is a generic character who exists solely for the plot, and not the other way around. The plot in the Bond movies is always separate from the man himself.
Characters we enjoy, and treasure, the ones we tell our friends about, are all battling something inside of them. A need for want thing, but an urge for another. It's this tension that's at the heart of every person, and makes them human. When we look at the best characters in fiction, we see a bit of ourselves in them; the best art functions as a mirror, where we can learn about ourselves by looking at our reflection.