How to unflatten a pancake character
Unless your novel takes place in the two-dimensional world of Flatland, you don’t want characters that lack multiple dimensions.
I re-tweeted a tweet last week about an author arguing with her main character about something she had planned to include in her story arc.
I’ve been thinking about that since then—mostly because of a situation I wrote myself into.
In the first of a series of books I’m collaborating on, we discussed an antagonist who would be involved in at least the first two books. Since the book series idea had morphed from a single book concept, the antagonist was originally cold-hearted, cold-blooded criminal. That characterization worked fine for a single book. However, as I was writing, I realized two things.
First. I’d written a really bad person.
Second. There was no way I wanted to continue writing about this particular individual because there was no way to go but deeper into the pit of badness.
So, I had a choice to make. You can speculate on what my options were. Here’s a quote to kickstart your thinking.
“No character should be all good or all bad--that is not believable. Characters are people and they are three-dimensional. The way to flesh out characters effectively is to have some good in the bad, some bad in the good. Showing a characters soft side gives understanding to the reader and they might still hate the character but it allows them to understand the character. All bad or good is boring and only works in fairy tales with good princess and bad queens.”
Go ahead, I’ll wait…
I’m not going to give you what I thought my options were. I don’t think that’s particularly relevant to this blog. Bad news: you can’t compare your ideas for options to mine. Good news: because I didn’t share, you’re options can’t be wrong.
What I decided to do was mellow the character out. I started by having his mother telepathically communicate:
This gesture is both unexpected and welcomed. It indicates a side of a personality I never manifested. It suits you well. Do not abandon it.
He is euthanizing his mother at the time of the comment. Hold that thought.
As I progressed along the storyline, Antagonist became, well not genial, but at least quasi-likable. That was fine… up to a point.
One of the key plot points in book two involves the Antagonist doing something it was beginning to look like he’d never do—now that he had this added depth of compassion.
So, I had to reverse course.
- I could have deleted all I’d written about his morph from all bad to not so bad.
- I could have changed the plot point in book 2.
- I could have generated an incident that caused Antagonist to revert backwards into his former self. Not all the way back, because that would have been counter productive and a big waste of time and energy.
I chose #3.
I’m feel certain now that the Antagonist will resonate with more readers in book 1 and still be able to pull of his dastardly deed in book 2 without moving out of character—and I now have a variety of ways to complete the dastardly deed in book 2 from which to choose.
You’ll have to wait until book 1 of the yet untitled series is available to see if you agree that I “did good” with my choice. But, you’ll have to wait until book 2 is out, to see if I really did what I hope I did.
Your goal needs to be 3-D characterization. Unless, of course, you live in Flatland.
Next blog: Miscellaneous Musings on The Business of Writing
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