This is the sixth in an ongoing series of StoryCrafting/StoryTelling posts I’m publishing for my own benefit; explaining something helps me determine if I’ve truly learned it or am simply parroting what others have offered. I learn my weak spots, what I need to study, et cetera.
Previous offerings include:
- Atmosphere is…
- Character is… (Part 1)
- Character is… (Part 2.1) – Exposition is…
- Character is… (Part 2.2) – Description is…
- Character is… (Part 2.3) – Action is…
And note that I’ll update/upgrade/edit these posts as I learn more.
A favorite quote of mine is “If you want to know someone’s mind, listen to their words. If you want to know someone’s heart, watch their actions.” It’s a favorite because it demonstrates one way to understand someone. Their heart and mind aren’t coordinated, aren’t in sync.
Specifically, it’s how their heart and mind aren’t in sync that matters. You may have heard the expressions “X says one thing and does another” and a personal favorite from childhood, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
A rich social example of this is pedophilia in the roman catholic church. Are these men holy or horrible? Or both? And do we need to recognize both aspects of their nature?
Well, yes. Especially if we want to use them as a rich, complex character rather than a stereotype. It’s the shading – specifically how these dual natures are revealed – that determines if a character is a genre-trope or main, primary or central character. Does the main character have a side-kick he has to explain things to, such as Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson? Have you noticed that every detective novel since (and probably before) has had a sidekick to whom the main character explains things? Side-kicks regardless of genre are tropes. Sherlock Holmes was a genre trope until he developed weaknesses. Now a main character with a weakness is a genre trope.
Interesting people have good sides and bad sides, bright angels and dark angels, greater and lesser natures. Show both active and you have an interesting character. Jim Bakker wasn’t interesting as long as he was a stereotypical televangelist. The news couldn’t get enough of him once he was a philandering, adulterous, morally corrupt televangelist (ditto Jimmy Swaggart) because such characters make interesting headlines. Demonstrate a Jim Bakker-like character working hard to hide his activity, ashamed of it, fearful of being discovered, aware that he’s betrayed his followers, taking actions to prevent discovery and you have a character worth reading about because that character’s now working against external (being discovered, preventing discovery) and internal (shame, fear) forces (characters in conflict with themselves make much better reading. More of this later).
James Bond is a stereotype and purely two dimensional. The world may be at risk, but never James himself. You know he’ll survive anything in this book because Fleming wrote some forty others (note that I do like the occasional James Bond novel. Every once in a while you have to eat Kraft macaroni&cheese to appreciate well made Pasta Primavera). Readers don’t like their genre-heroes going away/dying off/what have you. Doyle had to resurrect Holmes due to reader outrage. Martyrs are stereotypes, fanatics more so. But a risen god? How many books have been written about that? Hercule Poirot is two-dimensional. Perry Mason is two-dimensional. Robert Langdon is two-dimensional.
By definition, a series character can’t be rich and multidimensional. But readers of James Bond, Hercule Poirot, Perry Mason, and Robert Langdon books aren’t interested so much in the character as they are in the character overcoming whatever situation the author puts them in by being who they are, not by growing/changing to meet the crisis.
The More I wrote we’d get to later
Then what about Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire? He is extremely multidimensional. Ditto Robert Parker’s Spencer and Jesse Stone.
The difference deals with crafting; the stories are either first person or limited omniscient POV. They have to be because rich, multi-dimensional characters require lots of scene time to demonstrate their rich, multi-dimensional character. Internal conflict – the heart of rich, multi-dimensional characterization – requires demonstrations of self-doubt, personal anxiety, mistrust of one’s own motivations, life (or at least plot) altering revelations causing character-growing decisions, et cetera, enabling them to get through the story.
A two-dimensional genre character doesn’t interact with their environment (story line) except to conquer and/or get through it (usually to the next book). A multi-dimensional character must interact with their environment ir order to demonstrate their own internal growth and change (especially when the external world doesn’t change).
Making the reader aware of a character’s multi-dimensional nature
- The character can demonstrate it in their actions.
The Augmented Man is a killing machine (literally) who shows compassion for animals but not humans.
Until he does.
But the kicker is when he’s aware he does. In one scene he subjugates the urge to kill in order to listen, to respond to his immediate environment based on what’s happening in it rather than how he’s trained to respond to it. In another scene he intentionally rewires his thinking patterns in order to learn compassion.
Thus, first show the duality, second have the character aware of the duality, and third have them work to either heighten or suppress it. A fourth part which completes this is put them at risk based on whichever way they decide; they risk one thing if they heighten their duality and they put another, equally important thing at risk if they suppress their duality. Such characters are amazingly interesting because you’ve put them in a lose-lose situation, the reader knows (or at least hopes) they’ll turn it around to a win-win and is desperate to know how you’ll pull it off.
- You can also have a close compatriot realize it. Again in The Augmented Man, Major Donaldson realizes Trailer isn’t using camp discipline, a major change in Trailer’s behavior. Later, Donaldson realizes Trailer has a cold, another major change in his behavior because he’s designed not to get ill and to automatically self-repair.
- Have the character want to change. Their struggle becomes the story.
Trailer’s desire to move from a two-dimensional character to a multi-dimensional character is the core of the story. He becomes aware of his internal contradictions. At first he takes steps to hide, conquer, or control his dual natures (thematically known as “Man versus Self”).
(and there are other methods, I’m sure. Please add any you know of as a comment. I’d appreciate it)
Weaving a character’s growth/transition into a story
Use the reasons they want to grow as plot points. Trailer’s desire to become a full person marks a turning point in the story. His later decision to remain a killing machine is another turning point in the story.
Note that some readers want two-dimensional characters who don’t grow or change. They may identify with a character but only mythically, meaning a reader may want to be as suave and daring as James Bond or as intellectual as Hercule Poirot or as knowledgeable as Robert Langdon and recognize their pulling a Walter Mitty and (we hope) fantasizing themselves as the character.
However, readers will personally identify with multi-dimensional characters revealed through contradictions/shadings. The Augmented Man readers email me they cried over Nick’s struggles, they agonized with him, they rooted for him and feared for him.
IE, they were vested in him as an individual, not a character, and they could identify with his struggles because they’ve experienced similar emotional situations although rarely (I hope) similar physical situations.
Shadings/contradictions in character reveal depth of character. They give you more to work with, and move your story from trope-filled genre to the broader “fiction” genre. Consider these reader comments on The Augmented Man:
- “I’m not normally a fan of science fiction or military thrillers…Nick Trailer, the rogue augmented man whom the military had not expected to survive the war, starts out a bit like a monster but grows sympathetic by the end of the story.”
- “A laconic hero (with a tricked out spine) in the tradition of Gary Cooper whom you can’t help but root for.”
- “I found myself hoping to see his happy ending by the end of the novel.”
- “It has rich characters along with plenty of intense action. ”
- “At times, it’s difficult to tell who you should be rooting for, because the augmented man (Nick Trailer) is so unpredictable and violent.”
- “He’s a monster and I cried because I cared so much about him.”
These are demonstrations of a non-genre fans enjoying the story for the characters and their struggles in the story, not the events that take place in the story, and that enjoyment comes from character shading (what one reader called “the moral ambiguity of the characters”).
The link between all of the above is reader identification with the main character. That identification with a character is a point of relationship. Few people read a story or watch a movie if they don’t care about the characters, and if they don’t care about the characters, they won’t identify with them and won’t relate to the story.
IE, you’ve lost a reader and a sale.
Any character in a story is a point of relationship between the reader and the story itself. Readers identify with characters who are believable, meaning the reader has an “I know that person/being/creature/thing” reaction to the character. “I know that…” can be positive or negative, and preferably is both.
Readers want antagonists to fail when the antagonists have traits readers recognize as bad, nasty, evil. Readers want protagonists to succeed when the protagonists have traits readers recognize as good, honorable, righteous. Protagonists must have traits readers see in themselves, see in their heroes, or want in themselves.
Antagonists must have traits readers see in those they don’t like, are wary of, fear.
The ideal is to have protagonists who want the same things readers want and antagonists who want to stop the protagonist/reader from getting what they want.
Gold is when readers identify with a character who has good and bad traits and the reader wants the character to overcome their faults, meaning the reader can overcome those same faults in themselves.
Care for a critique of your writing? Let me know.
- The character can demonstrate it in their actions.