Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Multidimensionality of Character

Sid has pointed out about my "character paradox" post the importance of multidimensionality in a character. Real people have multiple characteristics, whereas characters that are criticised as unrealistic often seem to have only one dimension. Burrough's John Carter of Mars was unfailingly heroic, for example, while the old pulp style villain was unfailingly evil. But "seem to have only one dimension" is a key phrase here. Many of the more pulpish characters that I like are criticized as one dimensional by more literary oriented readers and writers, but they are mistaken because they haven't read the stories closely enough. Take Conan the Cimmerian, the Robert E. Howard creation, for example.

Conan is often described as dumb, but the actual stories by Howard make it clear that Conan was, in fact, quite cunning. He was "naive" in the stories where he was supposed to be young, but well educated, at least in the school of hard knocks, in the stories where he was king. Conan's philosophy of life was relatively simple, in keeping with his roots as a barbarian, but a simple philosophy does not equal stupidity.

Also, Conan is often described as a testosterone driven oaf who treated women as nothing more than objects. It is true that Conan liked women and enjoyed sex, but in the actual Howard stories he did not treat all women alike. He acted differently toward a tavern wench than he did toward a female warrior. He could show respect for a woman or he could treat them indifferently. Whether you approve of his behavior or not, his behavior with women was not one dimensional.

Why do so many people hold the view of Conan that they do? I think because they associate Conan more with the Arnold movies than they do with the Robert E. Howard creation.

I use Conan as example here, but maybe the same could be said of many other pulpish heroes. Maybe the same could be said of the female characters in pulp fiction. Maybe they have more dimensions than most of us believe. Maybe we've judged those characters and the writers who created them too harshly. I wonder.

7 comments:

Steve said...

Conan may also get a bad rap from the many, many years of Roy Thomas/John Buscema/Ernie Chan comics and magazines. Those things weren't much more than one-dimensional adolescent male power fantasies, a sort of next-step-up for superhero fans who'd discovered girls.

Come to think of it, those comics formed more of the conceptual basis for the movies than anything by REH. Roy Thomas even wrote that disasterous second Conan movie.

And yes, at thirteen I was very much a fan. After all, he won every fight and shagged every girl.

Hmmm, that reminds me--

James Bond. Also a much, much richer character in books than movies...

Jack said...

I think people are too quick to call characters one dimensional. Unfortuately, I don't have my wits about me, right now, to give examples. In thinking about Conan's inteligence, though, he does know several languages and people usually see that as inteligent.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I've always envisoned Conan as that dapper man-about-town. Urbane, sophisticated, muscular. He's the sort of fellow with a bon-vivant style all his own. Conan is pre-Christian GQ with an A.D. sensibility.

Conan, the man who has given us such lines as: "By Crom" and that partying standard: "Durg."

Yes, following him from slave boyhood, through Barbarian Modern, to Conquering Hero Made King, fans of Conan have come to understand that when faced with life's complexities, one must turn one's face to the sun and smile at nothing.

So, here's to you, Conan. Here's to the Barbarian in all of us.

Sheila said...

I think multidimensionality of a character in a story is quite important. Sometimes people just don't look closely enough at the character and make a large generalization when, in fact, there is more depth to the character. Great post!

Charles Gramlich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Gramlich said...

Steve, I'm sure you're right about the comic influence. I never read them as a kid, and as an adult have only picked up a few. I'm a member of the group REHupa, a Robert E. Howard group, and a lot of those guys got their start with the comics.

Jack, thanks for stopping by. What blog among your many do you post most on.

Sheila thanks for the post. Good work on your story.

Stewart, you're insane. But still a helluva nice guy.

Jack said...

Charles, Jack Talk was intended to be my main blog. As you can see, I went blog crazy. I'm not sure how I'm going to handle it yet, but I'm going to simplify my blog situation as soon as I can.