Sunday, September 24, 2006

Multi-dimensional Characters

I don't know about you, but my greatest fear is to write one-dimensional characters. Sure many a successful books had one-dimensional characters, but let's just not go there, I might get too frustrated.

You see, where can a writer draw his characters from? Real life, right?
So if I'm looking at a little sample of people I know very well and love, here are a few examples (from mild to extreme):
  • An over-sensitive person to the point of a mental condition and medication, yet that person is also very smart, loving and financially calculated.
  • A person obsessed about weight, putting the fear even into that person's children, yet this intelligent person is a loving parent in all other respects.
  • An alcoholic who is self absorbed and extremely jealous, yet can also be the best friend any person could ask for without asking for anything in return.
  • An extremely selfish, self-absorbed person who lives in his own little invented la-la land. That person conned people out of their money, truly believing he deserves that money. And yet, that person is a caring father and a funny guy.
  • And the worst - an abusive person. Although I didn't know it at the time, that person turned to be cheating and abusive, while also being a friend. This person is still a friend, and if you'd seen him with his wife and child today, you wouldn't believe the possible monster hiding in him.
And these are just a few examples. I'm sure you know of many more.

So what am I saying? I'm saying people aren't one-dimensional. I'm saying that my greatest fear is to write a character that is all evil or all good or all something. Yes, one-dimensional characters can be funny (re The Simpsons :), but they're not real (and I don't know how to write funny anyways).

I think that when it comes to my main characters I'm okay, I manage multi-dimensions, but I think I'm having a bit more of a problem with the supporting characters. I believe I mentioned something about that before.

In any event, I don't understand one-dimensional even though I've been known to read several books like that. These were either bad, or had a lot to offer in other departments to offset the weak characterization. I just wonder if there's any time a one-dimensional character could be justified.

I know, this haven't been a very structured post with a well defined point to it. I just shared my thoughts. Can you tell I'm writing again? Yay!

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redchurch said...

I think the trick is consciously adding those twists. A character may express personality features of someone you know, but is it enough?

Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes, and one of my fears is if I were to portray people I know, that my perceptions of them may seem extreme or unrealistic. So alas no matter what we do, the way we perceive certain kinds of characters it will be framed/limited by our viewpoint. We just have to accept that, or better yet, find a way to use that as a strength somehow.

If there is a specific kind of character you know really well then you will have better insight into how to portray them realistically.

I suppose the problem is not about the 'dimension' of the character, but rather how accurate your perceptions are about those people, and how you will choose to convey/portray them in their fictive form.

rdl said...

I think you are correct in saying - one dimentional characters are not good, except say in the Simpsons, but not in literature.

redchurch said...

Mel, something I forgot to suggest... if you're worried about your characterizations you could flip through a few books on the topic at your local bookstore and see if any of them might be helpful.

When in crisis, open a book! :)

Benjamin Solah said...

I love creating characters, and it's hard to make them three-dimentional sometimes. But other times, you don't need to think about who your character is, they just come to you, complete and very real.

It's great to see you writing again. I just came back too some problems with my net connection. I hope to fit writing into my new schedule.

Jennifer said...

I find I have the harder time making my 'bad guy' more than one-dimensional. It's so easy to make him/her bad and forget that they're more than just bad.

I'm writing a character now that started off being multi-faceted (sp). She's not bad, but she does present problems for my main characters. Somehow she morphed. Now I've gotta go back and rework her...

Definitely a challenge.

Carter said...

Yay for melly writing again!

One-dimensional characters do have a place, just not a very large one. Your supporting cast needs to be less interesting than your main characters. Otherwise, you run the risk of distracting your readers from the main point of the story and having a minor character upstage the important ones.

I think a good guideline is to make supporting characters less interesting in proportion to their input into the story. The "walk-ons" can have the appearance of personality and reality without being anything more than a facade. They are the backdrop, along with the setting, that adds dimensions to the story itself.

Hope that makes sense. It does to me, but you know how strange I am. ;)

Sharon J said...

Interesting post!

I tend to base my characters on somebody I know then add elements from others I know until I'm satisfied with the blend. This happens before I start writing them (not necessarily before I start writing the story, but before the character comes into play). They do tend to change as I write, though, which I hope adds dimensions rather than turns them into paper cut-outs of the kind I used to cut out of girls' mags as a kid and then dress up with paper cut out clothes. Bunty, anybody?

Nienke said...

Now one of my biggest fears is that you won't think I'm one dimensional! LOL

But seriously, I believe that many personality traights can come from one or two main goals and motivations. LIke, if a character wants to be accepted, they may be caring and loving but also, perhaps, obsessive about certain things to be liked. It comes back to defining GMC, for me, and then taking those GM and Cs and taking them to their fullest.

JLB said...

Greetings! I enjoyed your post on characters... I believe that the multidimensional characters are where you really get your audience engaged. You can play off a reader's emotions by creating antagonists with that "je ne sais quoi," or protagonists with blaring, hopeless faults.

That's not to say that such characters are easy to write... but certainly worth the effort!

Enjoy your writing. :)

Melly said...

Eric, you're right. I should have continued thinking before posting probably. One of the most important things obviously is to understand the character and what drives it. What makes a person tick, the reasoning behind the actions. I"m just rambling now as you got me thinking :)

Thanks rdl, that seems to be my perception as well.

Benjamin, true. I don't over-analyze when I write. It's in between. There's absolutely a danger to over-analyzing one-self.
Glad you're back and writing again.

Jennifer, I'd venture and say that it's because you're so good that you have a hard time imagining bad :)
But some of the best characters I've read did the worse things out of "good" motives.
I'm sure you'll get her done, btw.

Carter, thanks :)
You almost make total sense, but still in the Carter way ;)
Actually, you have an awsome point about not making supporting cast too interesting.

LOL, Sharon, thanks.
I think I'm more tentative than that. Have a vague idea, but the character takes on more form as I write.

Nienke, there's no possible way you could be one-dimensional. At least 3 ;)
But yeah, goals and motivations. If I don't know that, I know nothing about my characters, right?

jlb, hi.
You described exactly what I would love to achieve with my characters. Exactly!

Ryan Oakley said...

Those are one dimensional characters?

You could build worlds out of those people.

I'm a real person and I only have two traits: I'm drunk and terrified of bullfrogs.

fred charles said...

My novel takes place over the course of two days that are packed with action. The characters are in constant motion. It was hard to show different facets of their personality. I tried to do this through thoughts mostly. The main character second guesses herself a lot while struggling to make decisions. Hopefully it works, but I can never be sure.

Anonymous said...

Multi-dimensional characters also pull intriguing plot turns behind them. It's an important way to ramp up the tension. I'm always afraid that one-dimensional characters will populate very linear and simple plots.

Melly said...

No, Ryan, these were examples of multidimensions. Or are you still continuing your "deliberately not understanding" phase just to piss me off? LOL!
I can add a few more traits to the ones you mentioned, but I'm not going to do it here. Your picture says it all! :) :)

Fred, it actually sounds very good. I love these kinds of characters. So much more believable. I also remember now, you told us about your novel before. SOunds fascinating.

Jason, sure, ofcourse. That makes so much sense. Thanks for bringing it up. There probably is a real and direct relation between characterization and plot (notwithstandind Da-Vinci Code and the likes of course).

Sparkles said...

The part about people not being one-dimensional, and not knowing how to write funny struck a chord with me. I'm hearing you loud and clear.

metal said...

useful information blog,very good content.

Leo said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I love giving my characters personal demons to deal with, family issues even abnormal vices to keep them from either being too good or too evil.
Thanks for the info!

Melly said...

Sparkles, I think that writing funny is one of the most difficult things indeed. Well, at least for me.

Glad you liked it, Metal.

Leo, oh, personal demons are my favourites too. Glad we're in agreement :)

Edie said...

I agree with Carter. Foil characters can only be so interesting...if you go beyond their purpose, you risk losing focus. Think about figurative language, we all might like it and can appreciate what it adds to a work but if you over do it, you're left with fluff & flower.

Melly said...

Edie, Carter's one smart fella :)
I know what you mean. Totally agree. Love the way you put it :)

Anonymous said...

I've used obituaries of interesting people/characters from various newspapers as the starting point for characters that I've created. It gives you a framework of a life to start embellishing & thereby create a unique individual.

Siew Cooper said...

Interesting post! I could only add that when (years ago) I was writing stories, I liked to envision all my main and secondary characters first. Even if something doesn't end up occurring in what is written itself, I found it always helps to flesh out the characters in my mind - their background, livelihoods, even one or two secrets.

After all, we all act according to our values, beliefs, and experiences. I like to look into the hearts of my characters as a consequence, to see why they would act in certain ways.

Does that all make sense? In any case, I look forward to following your blog from now on :)

Patrick said...

I'm sure if you thought hard you could think of someone who seems pretty one dimensional. If you don't know someone well enough you wont know of all their dimensions. If a character is unimportant enough its alright if he's one dimensional.