The second installment of a four part series exploring three-dimensional characters and their effect on the popularity of fictional works.
First published in the Illuminata in December 2003.
Writing Three-Dimensional Characters
Part 2 of 4: Breaking Out The Yardstick
By Bret Funk
Characters are the backbone of every novel, the focus around which all other elements revolve. They control the story, sometimes even more than the author does. The plot is dependent upon their actions, and the author’s message is expressed through their successes or failures. Like a Pied Piper for the literary-minded, we expect characters to transport us to a different world, lead us blindly down the story’s twisting path, and make it so we not only enjoy the unrealistic or impossible events we read about, but believe them.
This is a lot of responsibility to place on fictional creations, and since they are incapable of providing for themselves, it falls to the author to supply them with tools they need to succeed. Some might argue that originality is the key to successful characters, but it is not. A limited number of characteristics exist; finding a combination of traits that has not been tried would be nigh on impossible. From monstrous tyrants to wise, aged leaders to noble (or tragic) knights, character types have been explored and successfully re-explored since the dawn of fictional writing. Even the anti-types – the cowardly warrior or bumbling wizard – have been used until they are as comfortable (if, perhaps, more comical) than the more expected amalgamations.
Three-dimensional characters are more than unique, they are believable, and it is that element of believability that makes them more effective that their cardboard cousins. With dimension comes distinctiveness, not because the character type has never been seen before, but because the sum of all parts leads to a unique individual, just like in reality.
Length, the feeling that a character is more than a point on the page, is the first dimension, and the most important. From it, the other two dimensions will grow, taking on shape and substance. For the purposes of writing, Length is mostly a measure of time, the impression that a character came from somewhere and is going somewhere, even if that somewhere is only the grave. Without Length, a character is little more than a thing, a creature who exists only in the now.
Many major players encountered in books are given Length by default. Writing a successful story that has characters going nowhere and doing nothing is… challenging. Without a future, there is no story, and the work becomes little more than a snapshot. This style works for a vignette, or perhaps even a short story, but the characters in any work of novel length should have a destination.
In addition to a future, main characters often have a past, too, though sometimes a very rudimentary one, to help explain their actions. The need for history can be circumvented by showing the motivational event in the body of the text, but a writer should be cautious when removing elements of history from a character, especially one central to the story. Upbringing has an effect on action even in the face of a cataclysmic event. You would not expect the son of die-hard pacifists to react the same way to his village’s slaughter as the son of fierce warriors, and should our peace-loving example decide to take up a sword in vengeance, his decision will have a far more profound effect on readers than the warrior’s.
While writers give main characters, and to some extent secondary ones, Length in their writing, minor players are by and large ignored, a mistake that has turned many works from exceptional to adequate. Though developing the hero is far more important than fleshing out the character who makes his boots, no world will truly come alive unless all the characters are real. When a writer makes those inconsequential characters exist, not just on their one page, but throughout the entire story, the work metamorphoses from a tale into a world. As each character’s individual past works its way into the story, the story itself develops a history, one that augments, and sometimes eclipses, the history originally intended by the author.
Numerous examples of Length’s effectiveness in developing a world exist in modern SF literature. Star Trek and Star Wars have both experienced incredible success in the decades since their introductions, and though neither was originally intended to be a literary phenomenon, dozens of novels have been written in each universe, many revolving around characters tangential to, or even nonexistent in, the original stories. Herbert’s Dune and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings have spawned books whose sole purpose is to explore the histories set forth in the originals, and successful stories like Blade Runner and games like Forgotten Realms have led to the creation of subsequent works that explore the world more fully while leaving the original characters behind.
The most convincing evidence, however, that the addition of Length leads to the creation of self-sustaining, believable worlds is readers’ ever-growing fascination with fan fiction. From Buffy to Farscape to Harry Potter, fans are writing stories that take place in any and every successful SF movie, series, or book; and while many involve the much-beloved characters familiar to readers, nearly as many follow new characters living in the original universe.
Adding Length to a character is far from difficult; it can be accomplished in a variety of ways and on a number of different levels. Most importantly, it can be worked in subtly so as to not interrupt the flow of the story, a real worry when developing minor characters.
To start, a writer must make the characters real in his mind. Once he believes they are integral to the story, their importance will be shown in his writing. Rather than thinking ‘anonymous drunken warrior throws punch at hero’ or ‘hero encounters random beggar,’ a moment should be spent thinking about why the character is there, not in terms of the event the character is meant to create, but rather the reason, in the bounds of the writer’s universe, that this minor player has reached this destination. Why was the warrior drunk, because he was celebrating or mourning? What past event created the unfortunate beggar, and why did he think the hero was a good mark? These questions will affect not only how these characters react, but will also aid the author in developing an overall tone for a particular scene or his story as a whole.
This reflection need not be detailed nor time-consuming; in fact, with practice, it becomes almost unconscious. Once it is accomplished successfully, these minor characters will appear, not just as an object encountered by the hero, but as a person in their own right, one that adds a little hint of dimension to the world at large. Whether or not they ever re-enter the story, their contribution has been made, and the story can only benefit from it.
Once the characters are real to the author, they must be made real to the reader. Much of this will be unconscious; elements of the characters’ personalities will appear by the simple fact that the author sees them as more than a plot device. But to ensure that these individuals are taken seriously by readers, a number of simple tricks can be used.
Names are of the utmost importance. In and of themselves, names convey a lot about a character’s past, both in their sound and in their meaning. The name ‘Kraltor’ doesn’t bring to mind the image of a waifish, innocent elven boy, and ‘Harmony’ may evoke the impression of a character in peace with her surroundings even if no additional description exists to support that supposition. Even when the reader misreads an intended irony or overlooks the significance of a name, watching Noskil battle Kantwin carries more weight than watching warrior 1 narrowly defeat his opponent, warrior 2.
Titles can be used to similar effect without breaking the flow of a story. Lord Captain Kraltor is a very different character than Kraltor the Miller’s Son. Those few words not only convey radically different images, they imply radically different histories. Much of that history is left up to the reader to create, but so long as it’s there, the character will stand out as more than mere words.
Description can also be used to show elements of a character’s past. From what clothes a character wears, to the number of scars on his face, to whether or not he shows either off proudly, description provides readers with the information they need to make the leap from plot device to person. Expression of emotion and reaction to stimuli, though far more important in the exploration of Width and Depth, also hint at events in a character’s past. When a brave warrior is taken aback by the sudden appearance of a spider, it could signify a past trauma. For all sufferers of arachnophobia there is an instant connection, and those personal connections are what help readers turn flat characters into three-dimensional ones.
Care must be taken with description, though, to ensure that the pace of the story is not interrupted by inconsequentials. To be effective, descriptions must be succinct. Paragraphs of detailed minutia on every creature encountered will not only bog down a story, it will be counterproductive to the goal of adding Length. Small amounts of description, tossed casually into the body of the text, will have a far more profound effect. It is important to remember that the goal is not to create an explanation for everything in the world, but to write a world that explains itself. If a thousand readers reach a thousand different conclusions, the author has not failed to create a convincing world, not so long as each reader believes his own interpretation.
Length can be added on a number of levels besides that of the individual. In fact, many of these levels should be taken into account when creating a character’s history. Race, upbringing and nationality, to name a few, will all have an effect on the individual. Characters of one race, be it Elven, Gnomish, or a new, as-yet-unexplored race of creatures, will have their own racial characteristics and propensities, as well as a shared history. Similarly, all regions, villages and nations will have their own history, and all characters within them will have been exposed to the same government, religion, society and prejudices during their lives. How will these things affect the character in question? Will he fit the stereotype, or will he be an outlier? If he differs from the norm, in which aspects and to what degree does he differ?
Once characteristics and history have been assigned to a race or nation, either through description or the introduction of a template character, additional characters can be given the same Length by merely mentioning the race or land of origin, or by one of the more common unifying elements, dialect. Any differences between the current character and the template can be addressed through prose or dialogue when the time is right. With little effort, similarities and differences between characters can be shown, and once each character hints at individuality, the world will come alive.
Again, caution must be taken when using race or nationality to give a character Length. A great deal of effort goes into designing a culture; to tweak every individual within that culture may seem a daunting task. The temptation to allow all non-essential characters to fall into a cookie-cutter form is strong, but the author must fight the urge of expediency. In the real world, we do not expect all people from the same place to act the same or believe exactly the same things. Why, then, should we hold our fantasy worlds to a lesser standard?
The irony of writing successful fantasy is that, to be successful, it must be realistic, and the first step to making a believable world is making the characters real. By giving each character a past, present, and future, an author adds Length to his story, giving his world dimension. Even when Length is used subtly, or merely hinted at, it adds an undercurrent of complexity that makes the universe stand out, and it is that uniqueness that draws rea
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