Monday 23 September 2013

Multi-Dimensional Character Building

We all want to write characters that have depth and complexity. We want them to feel like real people who struggle with decisions and choices, and we want the reader to be curious about what path they’ll take.

The problem is that if you give characters all the reactions and moods of a real person, they can turn into a confusing muddle of contradictions.

Conversely, if you try to streamline a character’s motivations and goals in an attempt to create a strong throughline which the reader can clearly identify and follow, that can make the character seem one-dimensional and robotic.

How, then, do you make a character feel fully formed and yet at the same time easy to engage with? 

People are complicated and even though it’s easier to understand something that’s been reduced to its basic elements—greedy man steals, jealous woman seduces, angry child strikes out—we all know there’s more to life than those one-off moments. Indeed, even those moments are influenced by other factors that may not be immediately obvious.

A one-dimensional character—a hero who’s all good, a villain who’s all bad—doesn’t just come across as unrealistic, it also becomes predictable and, eventually, tedious. We know goody-two-shoes is going to do the right thing, there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.

So we definitely want a character to have a broad range of possible behaviour and we want the reader to be aware of this.

But once a story gets going a lot of time will be spent on establishing the exact opposite, focusing the reader’s attention on a singular goal or motivation that’s driving the character forward.

Assuming the reader knows the character is also capable of different reactions to events depending on a wide variety of factors (from what happened earlier, what mood they’re in or whether they’ve had anything to eat today), isn’t going to be enough as momentum builds and (hopefully) the reader is swept up in the twist and turns of the narrative.

A common method used to give a character some depth is to think about their most prominent trait, work out what the complete opposite of that would be, and then come up with a scene where the character would react in that unexpected fashion.

A calm person gets riled up, a mean person helps out, a loving mother tells her kids to go to hell... under the right circumstances we are capable of just about anything, you just have to set it up in convincing fashion.

A simple scene like this can show that a character has a range of emotions and reactions, and that they may not just do what’s expected of them (by other characters or the reader), and so they become multi-dimensional.

However, if you just plop a scene like that into the middle of the story it won’t automatically feel like it belongs there. It can feel like a heavy-handed intrusion, especially if the scene has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

The effect is to make that scene feel separate and apart from everything else, and in doing so not only will it feel clumsy, it will be obvious to the reader what you’re trying to do. If they can see the card up your sleeve, it’s not a very impressive magic trick.

On a functional level, there’s no point having a scene that demonstrates that the evil monster loves his mother if that aspect has no further bearing on anything that happens. Yes, you’ve given the monster a more sophisticated veneer, but what are you going to do with it? He’s a serial killer who murders children with a pickaxe, so what if he makes cocoa for his invalid mother every night?

In the end it’s not enough to show that a character is capable of different reaction to different things, you have to show that a character is capable of different reactions to the same things.

That a guy loves his wife but hates his boss is not an indication of depth of character. But a guy who loves his wife and also hates his wife is someone whose situation might be worth exploring.

Bringing a character’s different dimensions into play on the same subject can be a little tricky, but when you do pull the threads together what you often get is conflict. Conflict within the character that can be as engrossing, violent and unpredictable as any external conflict.

Or it can provide a deeper understanding of the character, as in the mummy-loving child-murderer who only kills kids who are rude to their parents (would make an interesting middle-grade book...)

Different aspects of character that are able to co-exist quite happily and separately are of little benefit to a story. Seeing those aspects collide and battle for dominance, that feeling of knowing a character is dealing with an inner-conflict and not knowing which side is going to win, is what makes a multi-dimensional character fun to read about. 

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Every scene, every reaction, has to mean something to the whole.

mooderino said...

@Alex - bringing the different elements together in coherent fashion is the tricky part.

Unknown said...

You write such great articles about craft. This one (like all the others) will be a great help to me. Thanks! :-)

J E Oneil said...

I think you did a good job of explaining how characters are different than people. They can't just be the bundle of contradictions that humans are. The real difference is that characters have to always make sense :)

mooderino said...

@Lexa - you're very welcome.

@JE - cheers.

Unknown said...

Great advice; I like stories that explore the opposite end of a character's spectrum, even briefly. It keeps you guessing as to where they'll ultimately turn out :)

mooderino said...

@Jamie - i think readers enjoy some doubt as to which way a character will go (I certainly do).

~Sia McKye~ said...

People are complex. Hitting the right range with a character is a big more difficult but some quirks or mannerisms help as do opposites. I tend to use things that reach the reader on an emotional level--yes, inner conflicts are fun to explore.

My characters tend to live in my head awhile until I get to know them. When I start writing who they are is there. When they resist a certain plot idea or direction, that's when I start analyzing them a bit more and layer in those extras. :-)

Informative and thought provoking article.

Sia McKye Over Coffee

Gina Gao said...

Great characters are very hard to find and make. I have to imagine being able to talk to my characters before I can write about them.

mooderino said...

@Sia - for a writer, knowing a character beyond the events of the story always helps.

@Gina - I wish my characters would talk to me more, especially about interesting plot twists I hadn't considered. Also would be good if they did some of the typing.

Rachna Chhabria said...

"Conflict within the character that can be as engrossing, violent and unpredictable as any external conflict." This is something I completely agree with, inner conflict can be as interesting as external conflict.

Sharon Himsl said...

Ooh...this makes me want to tweak my characters more. Good advice.

Unknown said...

As someone who has been experiencing a little writer's block while trying to focus on character development, I feel that this article is just what I needed to help me move along. Thanks :)

mooderino said...

@Rachna - that's what I'll be looking at in my next post.

@Sharon - Cheers.

@Laneshia - glad to be of help.

OnlyWhenJen said...

I really like this post! I love trying to understand my characters as much as I can. These notes will definitely help me. =)

mooderino said...

@OnlyWhenJen - thanks for the kind words.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

One need look no further than Breaking Bad for examples of this.

mooderino said...

@Mike - poor old Mr White, things were always going to end bad for him.

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