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.)
- Motivation. What do your characters want? Even the surly innkeeper who pops up for two paragraphs to serve the villain a plate of waffles has something on his mind. Whether spoken or unspoken, expressed or implied, characters should have plausible reasons for the actions they take. People shouldn’t just show up in your story and randomly do things that suit the plot you’re trying to construct. Every time your characters reach a decision point, don’t think about what you want your character to do in order to fulfill your expectations for the story; you should be asking yourself what your character would do at that point, based on what you know about them. If the action you want the character to take doesn’t suit the character, you’ve got two main options: a) figure out something else for the character to do that suits your plot, or b) backfill details earlier in your story to make the action suit the character.
- Attitudes. A related but subtly different concept than motivation. If you’ve got a group of four main characters, how do all of the main characters relate to each one of the others? How does each character feel about the town they’re in, the situation they’ve ended up in, the object of their quest? Do they all agree about the urgency of what they’re doing? Is the tall guy with the scar always so quiet because he’s bored stiff, or fed up? The attitudes your characters have about their surroundings and their situation don’t need to be bold and dramatic on every page. Sometimes people just have an amiable indifference to what’s going on around them. But you as storyteller need to know and decide when your characters have that amiable indifference.
- A character arc. In real life, people often go through life without changing. We make the same mistakes we made twenty years ago, and we curse ourselves for failing to learn from them. But the subject of story is change. You can’t have a story without something happening, and you make things happen in stories largely to show how your characters react. So if you’re going to spend any time focusing on a character, generally you’re going to want that character to grow or change in some way through the course of your story. This doesn’t mean you need to tie up every story with an Important Life Lesson™, and it doesn’t mean that every character needs to experience a life-changing epiphany by the time you hit the back cover. But if your characters don’t change in some fashion, your readers are going to wonder what the point of your story is.
- A thematic purpose. Why did you decide to put this character in the story? You should have a reason for every character you’re going to put on paper. If you take the classic Star Wars trilogy, you’ll see that every major character serves a purpose vis-a-vis our protagonist, Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader represents what will happen to Luke if he continues down the path of anger and impetuosity; Leia stands for the home, family, and society he’s trying to defend; Han Solo represents the temptation to abandon community and responsibility; and so on. Often you don’t know the purpose of a character when they first leap through your fingers onto the keyboard, and you don’t necessarily need to map their utility on a Campbellian grid to know their purpose. A character’s purpose isn’t always a grand one either — after all, why do C-3PO and R2-D2 exist, except to provide comic relief and POV characters for certain crucial plot elements?
- A sense of history. I would argue that people behave how they behave because of three main things: (a) genetics, (b) environment, and (c) experience. Han Solo didn’t spring into existence the moment Luke and Obi-Wan walked into the cantina. You could hear from that flinty Lucas dialogue that the man had been scarred from experience, that he’d had a few run-ins with the law, that this wasn’t the first time some old man had hired him to hustle his kid out of town in a hurry. You as the author should have some idea of the general contours of your characters’ lives, even if the bulk of it gets left on the cutting room floor, so to speak.
- Quirks and mannerisms. Everyone has quirks, every single person who ever lived. Sprinkling some quasi-random idiosyncrasies on your characters helps readers build a unique-yet-consistent picture of them. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to fit absolutely everything about your character into some thematic template. Your heroine might have a nervous habit of scratching her ear, and that doesn’t have to tie in her deep-rooted ambivalence about the father who abandoned her thirty years ago. She might just have itchy ears.
There’s my list. Of course, you’ll want to take all of the above with a fist-sized hunk of salt, given that my two books to date have been accused of having characters that are two-dimensional, stereotyped — oh, all of the things listed in the first paragraph. I vigorously disagree, of course, but in the end that’s for you, the readers, to decide.
So what’s missing from the list?
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(Photo of a sculptor named Brian Moneypenny taken from the website of Moneypenny Fine Arts.)