In his Writing the Breakout Novel books, agent Donald Maass has many good suggestions and exercises, but there is one that stands out to me above the rest because it is a discover as basic as shading in art.
At some point in the past, there was a guy who invented the technique of shading. Somebody—or maybe a couple of people at different times—said, “Hey, if you add shading here, it makes it seem like the sun is over there.” And, in fact, it does. A simple technique, adding a bit of darkness all on the same side, and suddenly you have an illusion of light on the other side.
Even more importantly, you have an illusion of three-dimensions.
I do not know if Maass invented his technique, or if he borrowed it from someone else, but in his book, Maass puts his finger on what it is that makes a written character three-dimensional.
Like with art, a particular artist may do shading well or badly, but even a poor artist can achieve some sense of three-dimensionality by adding shading. So, with writing, while a better writer will do a better job with this technique, even a poor writer can achieve more of a feeling of three dimensional characters by using it.
What is this technique, you ask? (Luckily, I’m not selling anything, or this is the point where I’d go “read this book”. ;-) It is this:
Take your character, write down his main qualities. Then, write down opposite or conflicting qualities. For the qualities, write scenes where the conflicting quality is exhibited. For goals, have the character have two goals that are in conflict.
It’s that simple.
If your character is a curmudgeon, have a scene where you see his sweet side. If she is forever happy, show a touch of bitterness under the surface. If he is glum, show the moment when he temporarily forgets his glumness and is transported. If she is efficient, show the area where she just loses it.
Why does this work? Because two-dimensional characters are ones who always act the same way. They are always cheerful, or always disapproving. That is what makes them a stock character, a character who we can predict exactly what their reaction would be.
But real people are quirky, they have other sides to them. Even people who are really stuck in their ways have their moments of something more.
And this is what makes a character seem three-dimensional.
Maass says “opposite” traits, but I add “or conflicting,” because in my attempts to do this, I’ve noticed that sometimes the actual opposite trait won’t work. Sometimes a nice person really isn’t mean…but he might be glum or despondent or something else that is in conflict with his normal niceness. These conflicting traits seem to achieve the same effect of broadening the character’s scope and making them more than just the stock nice guy that opposites do.
Maass has a second step which is also useful. He says write down your character’s goal. Then write down the opposite goal. Have the character have both goals.
This exercise also really works—and it’s a good way to jumpstart plot—but again, conflicting works more often than opposite. If a guy’s goal is to revenge his father, it doesn’t make sense for him to also want to slander his father. But if he wants to revenge his father, but he discovers his father’s murderer is someone he needs to keep alive for some reason, then you have inbuilt conflict. He wants the guy dead, and he wants to protect him in order to achieve X. This, too, leads to three-dimensionality.
In my personal experience, these two exercises are absolutely invaluable. I’ve often found them to be more use for secondary characters than main characters…basically because my main characters are usually already thought out in more detail. Secondary characters, however, are often in danger of being rather simple. In just a few minutes, one can add a second or third dimension to any secondary character or villain, just by applying these two brief ideas and including a scene in the story where the conflicting qualities/goals are shown.
Go ahead! Try it for yourself.
Also, check out fellow author Danielle Ackley-McPhail’s Wednesday Writing Post: http://damcphail.livejournal.com/