Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Character Revisited

In Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, David Morrell says the following about characters: "Which are harder to write: types or multidimensional characters? I suggest types are harder because the narratives in which they appear impose limitations that make it more difficult to be creative."

Let me say, clearly, that I absolutely disagree with this. Let me also say that a writer in my writing group who publishes at a much higher level than I generally agreed with Morrell, and that I don't believe even creating a good character "type" is easy.

What evidence do I have to support my view? I will readily admit that it is anecdotal and/or non-scientific, but here's what I see.

1). There are more writers publishing and making a decent living out of writing types than multidimensional characters. This is despite the fact that readers in most genres will accept a multidimensional character even if they don't require one. I can enjoy a good private eye novel with a character who is very much the standard hard-boiled detective, but I don't mind if the writer has added something extra. So why don't more writers add that something extra? I suggest that it's a lot harder to do so.

2). Here's an analogy from painting. Character Types have certain standard characteristics that they need to exhibit. If you've read a lot in a genre you pretty soon pick these characteristics out. Then it's at least partly a matter of inserting these characteristics into your own work. I know that's not easy, but this can be a little more like a "paint by numbers" work than a completely free-hand painting. I couldn't paint a decent free-hand painting to save my life, but I can follow specific guidelines I'm given. It may not look terribly pretty but it will be servicable.

3). I've tried writing types and I've tried multidimensional characters in my own work. I find types immensely easier to work with. This is not necessarily to say that my "types" were well done, but I did get paid for them. I always try in my own work to give my types a little something extra, but I don't know if I've ever written a fully multidimensional character. I think the closest I've come is Kargen from Cold in the Light, and he isn't even human.

Developing good characters is never easy, of course. And this goes for types as well as multidimensional characters. I know people who have read extensively since they were young in a genre that they want to write in, and yet they don't seem to quite capture the essence of the character or the genre and their work remains largely unpublished. But I don't believe these folks could write a multidimensional character either.

Maybe I should do a little test of my own. For example, I've never written a hard-boiled detective character. Could I pull it off? I don't know, but I'm reading a little Raymond Chandler now and I'll see if I get the itch. I'll let you know what happens.


SQT said...

I think I see where you're going with this.

I don't think types and multidimensional characters have to be mutually exclusive, though I would agree they usually are.

I do think that the average reader likes types though. For me, reading is pretty much purely about entertainment. If I like the storyline enough I can overlook shallow character development; at least a little. But if the story is full of holes or lacks continuity, it'll drive me nuts.

But I do prefer a character who has depth. I want to feel the contradictions in their personalities.

Lucas Pederson said...

I agree with SQT, I like a character with a little depth, not saying I'm very good at it, I'm not. I really need to focus on my characters when I write, instead of enriching the story.
Yeah, I think you should give that hard boiled detective story a shot. I've been thinking about writing one for a couple years now. I think it would be fun. I don't know. You should at least give it a try. What could it hurt? If it's not working then can the damn thing and save it for another time. I know that's not easy, for me at least. I keep everything I write. I'll start something and then, think it's horrible, stop and file the thing away somewhere. Later I might pull them out and finish them, which I have done to a few pieces I've just recently writen. Great post, buddy.

cs harris said...

Since characters written to type are essentially borrowed, but multidimensional characters must be created, I agree that the types are easier. After all, I can COPY a Leonardo sketch; but no one's going to claim that what I did was harder than what Leonardo did. I wonder if Morrell is making excuses here.

Shauna Roberts said...

Isn't it almost essential that a multidimensional character start as a type? I see the type as the hanger one drapes the clothing of complex individuality on.

A character needs a sex, an age, an ethnic background, a marital status, a parental status, an economic status, a job, a time period, and a country or city. Those features alone create strong images in the reader's mind. If the writer doesn't challenge or expand the reader's stereotype in any way, the character is a type. I would argue that the multidimensional character results when the writer takes the stereotype, twists it, and fills in the gaps.

The one character I can think of who may not have originated as a type is Dr. Who. His motives, goals, personality, and behavior change unpredictably from week to week. He's a set of outfits with no hanger to support them.

Steve Malley said...

Maybe Morrel finds them harder to write because he won't let them stay cardboard. Fleshing them out without taking them 'out of character'. It's just a guess, though.

For instance, I'm thinking of Exposition Scientist. This poor bastard's entire reason for being in the story is to deliver a fact or two to the detective. And often as not, that's all the poor bastard does.

Sometimes a writer will try to 'flesh out' Expostion Scientist with one or two quirky traits. A thing for gardening, say. The result is usually that the poor bastard would've been better off delivering those facts about tire tracks/fingerprints/decompsotion/whatever and getting the hell offstage.

Then look at the entomologists from the movie version of Silence of the Lambs. Their only job is to give us a little lecture on the Death's Head Moth, and they don't do much more, but they come across perfectly as believable guys (especially the one in the glasses) who know about bugs and think Clarisse is cute.

That's a harder balancing act than it looks. And for a tiny bit of exposition, one not a lot of writers would bother with.

Steve Malley said...

Oh, and Shaunna, Dr Who was originally the Befuddled Grandfather (played by Peter Cushing), but for the last thirty or so years he's been The Nutty Professor.

Except it's the Nutty Professor as an action hero. He's a type out of context, and it makes him pretty charming. Mostly. Depending on who's playing him this week...

yes, I am a giant geek.

nolasteve said...

Another possible consideration favoring the “type” character. In a very plot focused story, there is more of a potential for jarring out of character behavior with a fully fleshed out actor in the story. I don’t think I have ever considered whether a Clussler was acting from a deep internal motivation. They just were the cardboard silhouettes that he had written and behaved as they were designed. One, and not the only, benefit of the full character is that behavior can be used to promote unexpected plot twist that will surprise readers. Cardboard characters usually act in very one dimensional stories. Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko plods against type like a Russian snow drift being different and that is what makes Smith not Clussler. But, you can’t blow through one of Smith’s books like popcorn or you will miss the real purpose of the book. In my mind, each has their place and their audience. Some will like one or the other. Some will like both. Some will like neither. Remember DVC.

Charles Gramlich said...

Good points everyone.

SQT, Lucas, Shauna, I agree. I think many writers, including myself, first think in "types" when we create genre characters, but then, hopefully, those characters grow and break through the constraints of their types.

CS, Steve, I know that Morrell felt like he didn't get much respect at Penn State where he taught for years from the "Real Writers." I suspect he's being a bit defensive here, justifying what he does and prefers to do.

Nolasteve, I think that is a possibility. If a fully fleshed character acts too much against type it might cause problems for some genre readers. I think, perhaps, writers could compensate for that, but it would take more work.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

What would happen if a writer started with a "type" and then used that as a foundation upon which to build character. What if one wrote a new Doc Savage novel, but instead of taking the character as he has been: a brooding, non communicative, demigod, and tell the story from his perspective.

AvDB said...

It's definitely more difficult writing a fleshed-out character than a type, but it's also a lot more fun. With a type, you have this box you're forced to work within. There's no coloring outside the lines, no experimenting with the crayons. Too rigid for my tastes.