David Louis Edelman May 30th, 2008
You’ve read the reviews, you’ve heard the slams, you’ve witnessed the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism. You’ve heard that such-and-such author has “flat,” “paper-thin,” or “two-dimensional” characters that are “weak,” “anemic,” and “stereotyped.” And now you, as an aspiring writer, want to know:
How can I avoid that? How can I create fully-fledged, rich, three-dimensional, fat, happy characters with plenty of iron in their blood?
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Problem is, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much time and effort you spend, what you’re really doing when you create fictional characters is pure illusion. It’s mimicry. Writers in college who have just discovered Plato get hooked on the idea that characters already exist out there in some nebulous Elysian Fields of the mind, and all you have to do is channel them. But that’s simply not true, and it’s not a particularly helpful metaphor.
I think it’s more useful to think of the art of characterization as something akin to the art of additive sculpture. When you build a character, you’re not describing an existing personality so much as building one from the ground up. (Additive sculpture, my Art History major wife informs me, is the type where you pile up stuff to build your object, whereas subtractive sculpture is where you start with an existing hunk of something and chisel away the stuff you don’t need.) Just like with sculpture, when building characters you’ll often throw in materials that you’ve got lying around the shop. And just like with sculpture, your characters don’t have anything that you don’t explicitly put there yourself.
So okay, you’re asking yourself, if building characters is like creating sculpture, what ingredients do I need to add to the mix? Glad you asked. Here’s my list of things that good, full characters need. (And keep in mind that these are the ingredients for major characters in your story; minor characters don’t necessarily need such attention.)