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.