The first of a four part series exploring three-dimensional characters and their effect on the popularity of fictional works.
First published in The Illuminata in November 2003.
Writing 3-D Characters (1 of 4)
By Bret Funk
Characters form the backbone of any good story. When properly written, characters draw readers into their world, making the fantastic real, the impossible possible, and the ordinary extraordinary. Through them, readers experience life, relive their own pasts, and learn valuable lessons. A mediocre story with great characters still appeals, while any story – even one with an exceptional premise – quickly grows stale if the characters do not seem real.
But what makes a good character? Why are some flat and lifeless, while others stir something deep within our souls?
The answer lies in dimension. Characters with no dimension are boring; they should exist only as filler, if at all. One-dimensional characters are appropriate in jokes, fables, or other forms of writing where a single event is told. In such writings, the character is not important except as a vessel through which the lesson (or punchline) is related. In these literary forms, one character can easily be substituted for another; they are not important. Characters of two dimensions are appropriate to short stories, where character growth is not essential. Here again, the characters are more a means to an end than true creations. Their purpose is to relate a story or prove a point, their personal struggles, internal growth, and reactions are not as important as the story.
In novel-length works, the characters are the story, and it is through them that authors attempt to hold a reader’s attention. To achieve this goal, characters must seem real; and to seem real, they must remind us of ourselves. They need to struggle, learn, and grow. They need to feel – love, fear, regret… the entire spectrum of emotions. They need to have a past and a future, and they must learn from watching others as much as from their own experiences. Most importantly, they must be unique, something that dimensionless characters never seem to be.
As an example, take Superman and Batman. Superman’s popular appeal has lessened since his first appearance, while Batman’s has grown. The explanation for this lies in dimension. In recent years, Superman’s character has undergone significant changes, but the Superman of old was a flat character. He was never tempted, never conflicted, and nigh on impossible to defeat. He had only one weakness and a host of amazing powers. After a while, readers could not stomach his holier-than-thou attitude and smug perfection, not because they disagreed with the morality he espoused, but because Superman was an unbelievable character; no real person could be that good.
On the other hand, the character of Batman, while still pushing the bounds of the impossible, carries far more dimension. A soul tormented by the murder of his parents, he stalks the night, seeking to bring justice to a world without it. He is mortal, far from indestructible, and his thoughts are often plagued by doubt, regret, and worry, especially in regard to the young side-kicks he draws into his life of vigilante crime-fighting. Readers have an easier time understanding Batman’s motivations and relating to his plight, his past is clearer and more readily defined, and his suffering is shared by those who follow his tale.
When writing, it is tempting to create dimensionless characters, if for no other reason than expediency. Especially when the role is a minor one, investing significant time and effort may seem counterintuitive. These are the characters whose names are never known, whose deaths evoke little emotion, and whose lives we know nothing about. Such characters can, and often do, serve a purpose, but it is rarely an essential one, except, perhaps, in their effect on more major players. Their history is unimportant, their future is irrelevant, and their thoughts would probably be mundane. Moreover, even if the time is taken to flesh out these characters, their lives will rarely grace the pages of a completed manuscript.
Dimension is customarily reserved for the characters who, as the focus of the story, require the most page time. Their successes (and failures) are supposed to matter to readers. Thus, authors (usually) devote the greatest part of their time to them. They are given all the things that less essential characters lack: history, feelings, thoughts, strengths, and weaknesses. When this melange is properly mixed, a lifelike character is born, one with whom a reader can relate, one who seems neither invincible nor immutable, and one subject to the same temptations that affect any living being.
Why, then, should extra effort be put into tertiary characters when that effort will rarely make the final edit? Because dimension does not have to be seen to be felt. If an author sees a character, no matter how insignificant, as real, then his readers will as well. By creating a history and personality for every character, an author has a framework upon which to frame his writing, and his attitude, word choice, and style will reflect that character and the circumstances appropriately. This history need not be as elaborate as those of the major players, but if it does not exist, the characters, and thus the story, will not seem real.
Take, for example, an unnamed character who suffers a tragic death on the battlefield. This character may be good or evil, young or old, noble or cowardly. If the author has no image of the character, then the event will mean nothing, and the writing will be generic. “The life faded from Unnamed’s eyes as the sword ran him through.” If this style appears every now and again, no harm is done, but each time this nonspecific writing is used, a little bit of dimension is lost.
Instead, let’s imagine that the author has envisioned this character as evil but cowardly. Knowing this, and perhaps a bit more, the author will choose words that appropriately reflect the character’s personality. “Unnamed stared at the carnage with a grim smile as he pulled the sword from his enemy’s back. He laughed as the body slumped forward, but his eyes widened in terror when he saw the blade descending toward his throat.”
Evil and Cowardly. With only these two bits of knowledge, significantly more detail was added to the death sequence. Readers should easily be able to guess the alignment of Unnamed, and some may even feel a sort of joy that, in the end, he gets what he deserves. If Unnamed were good, the words chosen would reflect that, and readers would come away saddened by the death or emboldened by Unnamed’s noble sacrifice.
In the above example, only the most cursory attempt is made to develop Unnamed. To add true dimension, more questions should be asked; the more numerous and detailed the questions, the more dimension the story will have. Where is Unnamed from? Who (or what) is he fighting for? Are his motivations the same as that of the protagonist and/or antagonist? What was his last thought? By making this insignificant character real in his mind, an author can make him real to his readers. After this process is applied to a hundred minor characters, or a thousand, the story evolves beyond mere words. It takes on a life of its own and becomes something more than a simple tale; it becomes a world. Dimension explains the success of Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and The Sword of Truth series, among others. It also explains why other, less well-rounded works have fallen into obscurity.
In my own writing, I have discovered that the more often I create histories for minor characters, the easier it becomes to do so. After a while, each character’s story comes of its own accord; I have to do little more than select a name. In a few instances, characters who were meant to be placeholders have developed into major players, not because I necessarily wanted it to happen, but because the story demanded it. Once a story starts telling the author what must happen, it has enough dimension.
In conclusion, characters with a single facet offer little to look at. Like a colorless shape scribbled on a blank page, they may catch the eye, but they cannot hold the attention. By investing time into every character, even tertiary ones, an author can create a world of incredible depth. By creating characters who feel, act, and react like real people, an author can draw readers into his stories, hopefully deep enough that the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur.