Some Thoughts on Writing Interesting Characters

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RC O'Leary
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Some Thoughts on Writing Interesting Characters

Post by RC O'Leary » January 6th, 2014, 5:10 pm

Here is a post I have decided to add to these forums instead of my very lightly trafficked blog. (think snowfall in Florida)

Writing Three Dimensional Characters

If you spend any time reading writing blogs or book reviews, you’ll run across some criticism of books that have two-dimensional characters who are flat and bore readers.

What I think the critics really mean to say is that such characters are actually “one dimensional” in terms of their actions and personalities. That they are characters who can be easily defined by one dominant trait. Because they are “single note” characters, they don’t connect with readers on any kind of emotional level.

One thing I try to remind myself when writing is that dull characters will cause readers to feel the same kind of dread that most of us feel when forced to spend time with a dull relative or co-worker. When that happens, odds are you’ll probably be polite, but you’re not likely to enjoy it, and there’s a good chance that the whole time you’re with the person you’ll be thinking about a graceful way to bring the encounter to an end. Unfortunately for writers, readers can do this a lot easier than we can simply by closing a book or toggling back to their Kindle library.

That’s why it’s imperative to make sure you never have a character that your readers find dull. Because in a book world with seemingly infinite choices, readers won’t stick around.

When writing your novel, there are some simple ways to make sure your characters don’t bore your readers. One of the best way to do this is to make them unpredictable. You can do this by giving them traits that seem to be complete contradictions. Isn’t that one of the things that made Tony Soprano so compelling? One minute he would be crying over ducks migrating away from his pool and the next he would be as cold-hearted as anybody on television. The same dynamic likely applies to many characters (and people) you likely find interesting. They have personalities that are in conflict. It makes them inherently unpredictable and that makes them interesting.

Another way to make sure none of your characters is dull is to have them do something that nobody would expect. When writing your main and secondary characters think of several things nobody would expect that character to do and then have them do it. I can guarantee you that a character who does something unexpected, as long as it’s not cliché, will never be described as boring. It makes them hard to figure out, which will mean your readers find them interesting.

Another good option is to have the character create tension with your other characters. Whether it is doing something or saying something that makes another character feel uncomfortable, it will resonate with your readers. When a character makes another character uncomfortable it creates conflict, which is one of the best ways to keep your readers engaged and to keep the pages turning. I’ve always agreed with the philosophy that some of the strongest relationships you can form in life can be built out of conflict. That’s true between people, and it’s also true between writers and readers.

You can also make sure none of your characters are ever criticized as being two dimensional by having them demonstrate emotional depth. This can be done by an action, through dialogue between characters, or even with an internal thought. The key in these situations is to remember the oft heard writing advice to “show, not tell.” If you show your character displaying some real emotion through a reaction, even better if it’s unpredictable, you can be sure nobody will think they are dull.

When revising your manuscript take a look at the characters that will matter to your readers. Could they be considered one dimensional? If yes, then it’s time to work your magic as a writer and make them compelling. It’s time to give them a personality transplant. (Too bad we can’t do that with Brian in the next cubicle.)

Give your character at least two traits that are in conflict. Have them say or do something that makes another character angry or makes another character laugh. Have them do something that elicits total sympathy for them. Or something that is deserving of complete contempt.

What do you find noble in other people? What could another person do to that would earn your complete contempt? Have your characters do those things and your readers will connect with them.

Remember, the same things that will trigger an emotional response from you are likely to trigger an emotional response from your readers. And if you do that, if you get your readers to respond to your characters in an emotional way, you’ll have characters who are compelling. The kind of characters that reviewers will never criticize as being two dimensional.

R.C. O'Leary
Author of Hallways in the Night

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Re: Some Thoughts on Writing Interesting Characters

Post by polymath » January 7th, 2014, 8:37 am

Character dimensionality is about realistic imitation of human complexity. A flat character is one who is portrayed as simplistically stereotypical, yet a degree more complex archetypes are artful and essential stereotypes. An artlessly flat character is one lacking in rounding features. Rounding features are equally the noble and wicked characteristics, their overlaps and third or more noirm, value, and more directions, the private and public, the strengths and weaknesses, the frailties, flaws, and self-involved shortcomings, the praise-worthy and approved self-sacrificing strengths of the human condition. Flat or round, a fully realized character portrait imitates the diverse complexity of human personalities, traits, behaviors, and a society's significance placed on any one or more of the above.

Another axis of character dimensionality involves transformative change. A static character is apprecialbly unchanged over the course of a narrative, perhaps resistant to change or simply unchanged. A dynamic character strives for change and changes. Superficial changes, more or less minor, might involve changes that don't meaningfully alter meaningful conditions. A character who struggles with depression and is depressed at the end hasn't changed. A character who moves to a new locale and doesn't experience a change in status or condition is unchanged. A character who defeats an enemy without much if any personal growth or change in status is unchanged. A character who exchanges an unsuitable love interest for another unsuitable love interest has not changed. Meaningful changes are matters of personal growth--maturation or decline.

A one-dimensional character might meaningfully change nonetheless. A character who starts from an unfortunate station in life might successfully achieve great fortune. That character's singleminded struggle for fortune is one-dimensional, purely driven by greed. A plot for such a narrative might straightforwardly pursue that want. If no problem opposes satisfying the want, that too is one-dimensional.

If problems do oppose satisfying the want or wants, then that plot oscillates between two extremes: success or failure. That is a two-dimensional character and plot. For added dimensionality, artfully so, more than those two extremes is called for. Not quirky or unpredictable or unexpected or contentious or unusual or contrary or surprising but natural, realistic, and delightful idiosyncracy. A wheelchair-bound athlete competing for a championship might be uncommon but not per se idiosyncractic nor assuredly artful or artless.

A flat and static character is at least two-dimesnional. Add in dull as well and that's at least a three-dimensional character. Is flat, static, and dull enough dimensionality? Probably not, but not necessarily artless. Such a character might be entertaining and dramatically arftul regardless. Perhaps to many readers Leopold Bloom of James Joyce's Ulysses is at least dull and static, maybe flat too, since his motives and obstacles are not as clearly and strongly expressed as might be desired. The parents of Harrison Bergeron, the eponymous focal character of Kurt Vonnegut's short story, are flat and static and dull. That's part of the story's meaning and irony. The parents are suited precisely to the drama. The protagonist Bergeron is likewise flat, though not static or dull. Therein the crux of drama lies. Harrison has wants and problems wanting satisfaction, experiences change, and struggles with opposition to his efforts. More anon.

Even if flat and static, a character lacking dimensionality is not exclusively an artless portrayal. One or more such characters may support a central, more dimensional character, Likewise, a dimensionless central character can be engaging, dramatic, and artful, if that character is, say, a mere involved observer standing within the narrative setting in the place of readers.

The term "conflict" is much bandied about by writers, editors, publishers, critics, and other writing-related auditors, like teachers. The term is a shorthand label for a spectrum of writing principles and life circumstances. Conflict is a clash of wills between characters. Conflict is internal or external contentions, or both internal and external. Conflict is what many say is the core kernel of dramatic action, though it's not (more anon). Conflict is what happens between enemy combatants. Conflict, in exacting narrative theory terms, is diametrically opposing, mutually exclusive stakes and outcomes. For example, life or death, health or sickness, acceptance or rejection, riches or rags, salvation or condemnation, success or failure, personal growth or decline, etc., etc. Conflict, as in specifically literary conflict, or dramatic conflict, is related to dramatic complication and antagonism and causation but distiguishable from those related attachments.

Now anon. Wants and problems wanting satisfaction is the definition of dramatic complication. Dramatic complication is a core kernel set, pattern, and sequence of narrative structure, also known as dramatic structure and, of course, plot. It is a matter more of events than of characters or settings, though overlapping with those two. Events without characters or settings do not constitute a dramatic narrative. In other words, dimensionality is as much about events as about character, and settings as well due to their influences upon events and characters, and most central of all to their influences upon and influences by dramatic complication.

Wants can be problems, problems wants, though a problem wanting satisfaction might be the more artful and engaging of the possibilities. Problem, a terrorist threat causes an alert. Want, desire to defuse the threat. Both are self-sacrfice for a greater good than any one individual's wants or problems. Problem, orphan Annie Potter is poor, unattractive, and sickly. Want, meaningful companionship. Self-involved though her dramatic complication is, it is identifiable- and association-worthy--if epic, meaning larger than life, meaning representative of readers' similar life complications, meaning symbolizing and artfully portraying a fully realized imitation of a meaningful human condition.

A want for riches might not be as artful a self-sacrificing dramatic complication. Such a narrative opening drama might signal a selfish character, one who readers would love to see receive a just come-upance. That could be artful and entertaining. On the other hand, an artful imitation of reality might portray such a character succeeding and yet be tragically, ironically beautiful nevertheless.

Fully realized is also a term much bandied about by narrative theorists. Its meaning is simply that of a fully realistic imitation of reality in written-word narrative form.
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