The difference between 2D and 3D characters: OBJECTIVITY

This is a subject close to my heart, because this is how I feel not just about the writing process, but life in general. Sometimes, we as human beings get so tied up with our own “networks” of knowledge and personal beliefs, that we often filter out opposing viewpoints because we must only allow those opinions in that agree with our own. Not only is this harmful to us (because a lack of challenge prevents us from strengthening our own position; “being right” therefore becomes more about an ideological soapbox than about defending something we truthfully believe in) but it is harmful to our writing.

One thing that I try vehemently to overcome in my writing is the creation of the 2D character. 2D characters lack vitality; their appearance in your story leaves a reader’s attention waning. If you’re not vigilant about turning those 2D’s into 3D’s, then your book will end up being consigned to the neverending pile of unfinished, half-read books. Is that what you’ve been slaving away for, all these months/years? No; you want your story to be so addicting that your reader can’t put it down; you want to dazzle your reader with not just your ability to put a sentence together, but put one together in such a way that it makes them think again about everything they’ve ever believed. At least, that’s the kind of story that I long to create. I don’t put my heart and soul into building up a story, stealing precious moments moonlighting with my manuscript, just to have half of it read. Certainly, I’m aware that my ego, when it comes to writing, is fragile, and my expectations are high. But I don’t think it’s impossible to seek out great storytelling. If my readers are my customers, I want my customers to be completely satisfied. If I expect anyone to bother paying for something I created, then I would expect that they demand excellence, just like they would if they were dining at a fine restaurant.

Readers have the right to expect you to bring your a-game. And if you hope to have any chance of sticking out in their memory, when they sit and think back to all of the books they’ve ever read, then you’ve got to get your characters on the 3D. And how do you do that? Well, let’s look at what it means to be 2D. 2D characters are on daytime dramas; they’re beautiful; they always say the right thing. If they’re flawed, it’s in an adorable way. Not a realistic way. When they’re angry, it’s because they’ve got a right to be, and whenever they speak, it’s with conviction. They would never know what it’s like to try to give themselves a pep talk behind the locked door of a bathroom cubicle, trying to get up the gumption to tell someone they are angry. They would never know what it’s like to be put on the spot, demanded their opinion, to which they had no way of responding except by revealing their total ignorance of a subject. Do you see what I’m getting at? The 2D character has no flaws, or if they do, it doesn’t control them or consume them in any way. People might want to be the 2D character, because doesn’t everyone want to be beautiful and say the right thing all the time?

The 3D character, on the other hand, is one that your readers already know. They don’t just want to be the 3D character; they already are the 3D character. That’s why they keep reading, because they recognize something in that character, which is something that the 2D character always lacks: frailty. The one essential trait that every human being understands, and that we all try to hide. We don’t even realize that everyone else on the planet experiences it; we just walk around in our own frail universe, totally oblivious that anyone else is experiencing the same thing. If you, as a writer, can harness some of that frailty that you naturally already know just given your experience as a human being, then you will be able to tap into the source of the 3D character.

Let’s look at frailty. What does it mean? Frailty denotes a sense of breakableness; or maybe even something that has already broken before, and has been put back together again. Think of a porcelain teacup. If it drops, it’s going to break. If it’s been broken already, it can be mended, but it will never hold tea the same way again. Do you ever feel like that? Something might have happened to you somewhere along the path of your life, and it’s like you can’t put yourself back together again the same way. Just like a broken teacup, you might feel like your purpose might never be realized again, like the thing that you were put here to do has been damaged, because you’ve been damaged. You go on, your pieces glued back together, but you’re not the same. Now you’re afraid of being dropped again, of shattering again. You’re afraid to be picked up and held; you are afraid to be filled for fear of being unable to hold it in. Not only are you afraid of that, but you’re afraid of anyone knowing that you’re even afraid, because if they knew how afraid you were, they’d think you were silly (because you assume that you’re the only one who’s ever been dropped and broken.)

This is frailty. And when you write, you have to put yourself into that role. You’ve got to create your character inside and out; not only do you need to describe their physical features like their eye color or their gait, but you need to create their past. You’ve got to know the exact thing they’re trying to run away from, because your job is to help them to face it head on. This task becomes even more difficult, however, when we are faced with having to give a megaphone to those characters with whom we disagree. So this becomes a sort of spiritual challenge for the writer, because we have to be completely willing to put everything on the line: our beliefs, our comfort zones. We have to make ourselves get into that position that we always try to run away from in every other situation: we have to stop for awhile, and lend an ear to what we don’t always want to hear.

It’s too easy these days, because if we disagree with someone or something, we can just change the channel, or close the internet tab. We go and find something else, something we agree with. We’ve become completely determined to only see things “our” way, ignoring the fact that there are a few billion other people out there, and not all of them are going to agree with us. When you’re writing, you can’t be the one to change the channel; you’ve got to be the one to stop yourself as you notice your hackles going up, and you need to tell yourself to sit and listen. This is your research, not only into what someone else has to say, but into how you, as a human, might overcome this all-too-human defense mechanism of putting everyone and everything you don’t agree with into a “them” category which fits so nicely opposed to your “me” or “us” category. In reality, life isn’t like that. Don’t let yourself forget the fact that everyone is frail. If they’re flawed, it’s because they’re human. Being flawed, and learning to deal with those flaws, is the whole definition of the human condition, and that’s what you’re trying to understand as a writer.

I’m not perfect, by any means. But I realized not too long ago that I have surrounded myself in this ridiculous expectation of only seeking out the company of those who believe what I believe, or like what I like. How will that benefit me as an individual? The answer is, it doesn’t. Whether in writing or in life, we have to put ourselves out there; we have to be the one to jump onto the dance floor first, make a bit of a fool of ourselves, just to show others that it’s okay. There is no way in life to have the good without the bad; no character is 100% “evil,” because even the best-written bad-guys have something in their past that justified their crossover. So go ahead, write that horrible sadistic wife beating drunk, but remember that he can’t have just appeared one day like that. He’s had an entire life’s worth of experience that led him to this point, and you have to explain them. We don’t have to feel sorry for the guy, but we have to understand why he is the way he is. (Or she — maybe it’s a woman beating up a guy.) Go ahead and write that racist skinhead character, or the horrible sexually-abusive figure of authority. Yes, confront that shadowy figure that scares those of us in real life more than the idea of monsters or zombies. But show us why: show us the frailty. Show us that, given the same set of circumstances, we too might have gone down the same path.

And then, just as you’re developing that 3D character, along comes the opposition: equally as flawed, equally as vulnerable. But this is the protagonist: he (or she) also knows what it’s like to be frail, but their response to it is different. The protagonist juxtaposes the antagonist; they work against each other. When one goes up, the other goes down. As soon as one gets ahead, the other one grabs him by the shirt collars and brings him back down again. This is the eternal fight baby; it’s what it’s all about! God versus the Devil; good versus bad, whatever you want to call it. It’s the struggle and you have to show it as such. Show us every ounce of sweat and every spume of blood as it goes flying, because — if you’ve written both of your characters in true 3D fashion — we know them both. We understand why one of them throws a punch below the belt, and why the other one would never do that. We know who we want to win (always the good guy) but we enjoy watching the fight come to its inevitable conclusion.

So, to sum up: in writing and in life, dare to listen to all sides. I always think of the line from The Desiderata: “As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all people. Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant, for they too, have their story.”

For they too have their story, a story which you are responsible for telling.


Getting to Know All About You: Characters and the Different Processes for Making them GREAT

Today’s topic was requested through one of my oldest pals, who happens to write characters as her job (cool sounding job!). I believe she writes technical copy for software programs, in an attempt to understand how and why customers might buy their products. She had some great questions for me, regarding what my process is for figuring out what my characters are like and/or whether I base them on real-life people. She also had some fantastic feedback about how reading this blog was like reading a character in my life story, which, let’s face it, is the most touching thing I’ve heard this millennium!

So after considering it a bit, I realized that I try to come up with the idea for the story first, and then I ask what kinds of characters are needed to make the story work. If the story is more plot-driven, I’m going to consider the strength of character to be paramount, because plot-driven stories can’t take off when you’ve got a weak character. However, if the plot is driven more by a message I’m trying to get across, then the characters might get away with being less than striking; the message takes time to build, like a chess game that you’re playing with the reader. You give them a pawn or two, building up momentum, while your bishop slides diagonally closer, eventually succumbing to their rook, but they hadn’t seen your knight as it suddenly appears, blocking their Queen. Everything they thought they’d known has just been turned on its head — suddenly they see their King has no way out. Bam! You deliver the message; checkmate. This kind of plot takes some easing into, and your characters are merely messengers, acting as necessary to get that message across.

And then you have plots that are character-driven, which is the other way around. I’m always drawn to the juxtaposition: think fiery young Mattie Ross, pitted against the bumbling, aging Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1968) by Charles Portis; consider neat-freak Felix Unger, holed up in an apartment with the hygienically-negligent Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (1965). This dynamic works because it allows the reader to learn about the characters just by having them react to each other. In these cases, it’s mostly all about showing, and not telling, and it can create opportunities for buzzing dialog while the plot just rolls on. It’s fun to write when you have a juxtaposition. So try it — put a conspiracy theorist with a lackadaisical hippy, or a brainiac scientist with a lofty poet. The plot in a character-driven story is not always the most important thing — exactly how the two opposites are thrown together is not nearly as important as what ensues once they are. And the best part about writing these characters is that everybody knows a Felix Unger, or maybe they’re the Oscar Madison of their social circle. We know what it’s like to be annoyed, or to be the annoying one, which is why it’s so easy to get emotionally invested in the juxtaposition. Polar opposites are memorable simply because they’re polar opposites (just think, would Lorelei Gilmore’s story be so endearing if she didn’t have to run away from the staunch and humorless Emily Gilmore when she was sixteen?).

Once you decide on your plot, then it’s time to hone in on those characters. So how do we create great characters? There are really so many ways to do this, that you’re never without options for tools to use. I really enjoy the character questionnaires in K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises for Planning Your Best Book (PenForASword Publishing, 2014).  Basically what Weiland does is asks you to get to know who you’re writing about, before you even attempt to write anything. This is a technique often used in creative writing workshops, as well; if you feel like you’re getting stuck writing a character, try writing a side piece from their perspective. Not as part of your story, but as a supplement to it, like a diary entry written by them, in first person. How would that character react to a good situation? What about a bad one? Give them a random event or two: they lose their job (how do they react?) then they go home and find their spouse in a tryst with the neighbor (then how do they react?). Once you complete this side exercise, try going back to your manuscript again and writing. Hopefully, you should be able to feel a bit more comfortable with how that character might behave, or what he or she would say.

Another thing that is important, for any writer, is giving their character detail. Details are like seasonings, in that they can take the flattest story out there and breathe life into it. You need to put a little bit everywhere, not a lot in one big spoonful. And there’s not much that is superfluous — if you think that what happened to your character that fateful summer spent at camp forty years ago still impacts their life today somehow, then write it. If you know that your character keeps a jar of lotion in the drawer of her nightstand, next to some photograph that she gazes upon every night, then write it. What are the character’s motivations? What were his/her parents like? Were they careless dictators, pushing them constantly toward achievement, only to make themselves look good? Or did they let the nanny raise them, barely involving themselves at all? Your character’s background is important, because it gives them a depth that’s necessary for a reader to believe them. The reader will likely not believe that a woman would kill her children, for instance — but give them the backdrop of a slave’s life in Civil War-era America, a la Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and it starts to make more sense.

This is the part about being a writer that’s not just challenging, but exciting. It’s like a little game that you’re playing with your reader, and it’s a game they want you to win. Your job is to entertain them, to tell them a story. Just how far will they let you take them? A good writer can get them to see the plausible, but a great writer can get them to believe the impossible.


There’s only one you – and only you have the voice to prove it

Today I’m going to discuss, as previously hinted, the topic of your writing voice. To me it’s one of the most important aspects of writing. Any type of writer, whether they’re a mystery, historical fiction, non-fiction, thriller, etc, they all have their own voice that’s unique. In my opinion, having a unique perspective means that you can go ahead and tell that story that might have been told since the beginning of human experience. Sure, you can take that story, whether it’s boy-meets-girl, coming of age, fable-with-a-twist or all of the above, and make it your own. This is good news for everyone, because as my grandmother used to say, “There ain’t nothing new under the sun.” No one is going to be able to write something that’s not been done before, and that’s ok. Readers don’t expect a brand-new plot; they’re used to the age-old formulas that work, and they work because readers are familiar with them. It took me ages to understand that. As a writer, I thought I was expected to produce something that was new and exciting, like a new science fiction world. Some people can do that, and do it well — but I’m glad I never attempted to go that route, because it wouldn’t be my style.

And that’s what voice is. Voice works in two ways; the first way is it’s your own voice that you’re using to craft your story, and the second way is it’s your own voice that’s speaking to you, telling you what you should and shouldn’t pursue. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think that we should challenge ourselves, especially if we are inspired by the way that someone writes or a new technique that we find really exciting. I remember when I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and I was completely blown away by the way she told the same story from multiple points-of-view. It was truly a thrilling experience to see how the different characters reacted to the same events that went on around them, and I imagined Kingsolver at work writing it, thinking how much fun it must have been putting on the different hats of her characters and writing from their perspective.

But I’m not sure that the same style would work in my writing. Maybe some day, if something calls to me to frame a story in that way, I can, but forcing myself to do it just because I saw how well it worked for Barbara Kingsolver would not be staying true to my own voice. Yes, it’s great to have writer heroes that we aspire to. Personally I really admire J.K. Rowling, not just because she’s had commercial success, but because she went from writing Harry Potter to that amazing story of The Casual Vacancy. That was a great book, in my opinion, and I admired that she had the guts to go from the world of Harry Potter to telling this touching story showcasing the fragile ego still at work in Britain’s modern class system. (Of course, the TV version was pigeon poo compared to the book, but ain’t that always the way it goes?) J.K. Rowling listened to her own voice, that said “you know what? write that story you’ve been thinking about for the last decade or so. It’s time to break free from Hogwart’s and show the world what else you’ve got.” And I’m glad that she listened.

It bears thinking about, however, the way a voice can change over time. I’m sure for a long time, while she enjoyed the commercial success of Harry Potter, she may have felt confined to that box; maybe she didn’t believe the public would accept a different story from her, especially not a story of a smack addict and her two kids suffering at the hands of her neglect, all wrapped up in a seemingly non-important framing of a vacant seat on the local council. J.K. Rowling probably wrestled for awhile before deciding that she could show everyone, including herself, that she had more to contribute.

As writers, there are definitely the doubting voices, and everyone can attest to that. Those are almost always the ones we pay attention to, and why is that? Why do we listen to the negative voices and shun the positive ones? Are we just naturally masochists, or is there more to it? Personally I believe that it’s built into the human consciousness to doubt ourselves; even people who don’t write know what it’s like to doubt themselves, which tells me that it’s pretty tightly ingrained somewhere within our historical context. I’m sure at one point in time, back in the caveman days, we had to make decisions thick-and-fast, like whether we could outrun a saber-tooth tiger. In those old situations, it paid to heed our natural warning signals, because bad decisions had probably much graver consequences then. But now, a few millennia later, this doubting has become excessive. Sometimes I also wonder that we feed the doubt because we are stalling for time, because just possibly we aren’t really ready to discover how totally awesome we really are. It’s become unattractive to root for yourself, too (which is another reason we flame those fires of doubt). Sure, maybe it does sound a bit egotistical to say, “Hey, I AM awesome!”

But really, if we don’t learn to say that to ourselves, we’re holding ourselves back. That’s what tapping into your writer’s voice is all about: giving yourself the room to be amazing.

We have to start by responding to that voice that says “No, you can’t!” by asking ourselves: what if I do chance it? It’s not like I’ll die, right? It’s not the saber-tooth tiger coming after me now. If it’s horrible, no one has to see it. What’s the harm in trying? If nothing else, you’ll be returning to that spot of writing just for the pure pleasure of it – not because it could be a commercial success, turned into a crappy three-part made for TV movie that does no justice to the brilliance of our novel. At least once a week, I think we should all just “dabble,” doing that one thing we’d like to do but for whatever reason we’ve not let ourselves. Let’s just do it for the FUN of writing. That’s the first step to developing your voice – you’ve got to give it the room to speak.

The second step is to know that what comes out might be quite crazy. You could write something that scares yourself. Maybe you’d be embarrassed to show it to anyone; you could be staring at the cursor blinking away on the screen, having just written something totally shocking, mostly for the reason that you can’t believe YOU wrote it. And you know what? That’s GOOD! When you let that authentic voice come out, you’re going to learn that you know way more about creating multi-faceted characters than you realized. Dare to only write characters who, when they start talking, only say the things that you’ve never had the guts to say in real life. That’s when your writing goes to another dimension, and you will amaze yourself.

There is only one you out there in the world. It might be hard to remember that, because we are only the most recent in a long span of lives, with a lot of the same hopes and faults as generations of humans before us. And yet, our DNA is unique. Our fingerprints are unique. And the experiences we have been through are different than anyone else’s. So give yourself the breathing space to let all that out, and see what fantastic things come from it.