I wanted to talk some more about the concept of character depth in fiction. I think about this issue a lot, as evidenced most recently by my blog post from a few weeks ago on getting your audience to give a damn about fictional beings. So you may imagine my chin-scratching delight in finding a 2010 article at OverthinkingIt.com which digs into some interesting thoughts on how not every character in fiction needs to be presented in the vaunted “three dimensions”. In fact, it’s probably better that they aren’t: LINK
It’s a long piece, and it rambles some; for instance, the first page is mostly about the dangers of reducing characters or entire works into socio-political constructs (another topic I’ve touched on before). Overthinking It is a place that often makes my own writing here seem brief and to the point by comparison. But it has some very, very good points in calling for writers to stop obsessively trying to present “depth” in all their characters, which more often than not just ends up coming off as an artificial exercise.
This sounds on the surface (heh) like a blasphemous notion that would condemn us all to the shallow spectacle of a Michael Bay casting call, but Michael Bay films are actually a pretty good example of how making these weird, misplaced nods towards the notion of depth have been screwing up modern movies. Article scribe Fenzel provides his own example that could easily have been culled from a Bay movie or any number of others, imagining the first words out of a character’s mouth:
“Oh, hi, I like ketchup. Yum, ketchup. Best thing ever on a pastrami sandwich! My mom used to make it for me before she died of cancer. I’ve decided that, because she died of cancer, I’m going after this tobacco company, and you’re either with me or against me.” Congratulations, plucky news reporter on the wrong side of the law, your character has been developed.
Is this ketchup stuff and mom stuff actually important to your character? The producer who insists you have a three-dimensional character thinks so. Is it important for the audience to know this about your character? The social critic thinks so.
But if you met me on the street and we had a conversation that didn’t involve ketchup or pastrami, I don’t think you’d necessarily find the conversation lacking, and if the words I said didn’t happen to reveal any information about my history with cold cuts or condiments, I don’t think it would make me less believable as a human being in that context.
After you’ve seen it for the millionth time, this character development stuff smells an awful lot like crap.
In the quest to make characters seem more real to an audience, stuff like this arguably does the opposite… because yes, how many people do you meet and immediately start spilling your life story to? If I had started Zombie Ranch with Suzie explaining exactly what happened to her daddy and how that’s colored her motivations and her reactions ever since, it might clear up a few questions — but it would have done so at a price. Fenzel again:
Do I really need to see another flashback to this person’s childhood? Do I really need to hear him talk in impossibly straightforward, if emotionally terse terms about his psychological baggage? People you come across in life don’t tend to provide you with this information before you interact with them, and yet somehow when a fictional character holds back this information, it’s unrealistic. Really?
I hearken back to those stoic Western heroes and heroines of old, whose moody stares could convey a more powerful sense of depth and history than endless paragraphs of narration. Shane begins and ends his tale as a cipher to us, the audience, but I never once doubted his reality as a thinking, feeling human being. The still waters ran deep. Fenzel himself draws some apt quotes from Mac Wellman, a playwright who lamented this compulsion to lay everything about a character out on the table:
…it may be precisely the habit of writing characters from the inside out, as it were, that leads to this impasse: characters made up of explanations become creakingly artificial, emotional automata who never, but never, resemble people as actually experienced. Rather these characters — and I would offer the entire cast of Death of a Salesman as example — are merely theoretical. They are aggregations of explicated motives, explicated past behavior, wholly knowable and wholly contrived. They seem animated by remote control, as if from another planet. Representing, as they do, a theoretical view of life (and there is none more theoretical than contemporary American naturalism), they cannot hold back any nasty little secrets, they tell no lies, do not surprise us too much, and, in fact, are capable of very little that is interesting.
Admittedly, a lot of the article is rooted in the media that can enjoy the luxury of the writing not having to cover everything, since there are other elements that can expand upon it: stage plays, film, etc. But I would definitely go ahead and include comics. Pure prose fiction makes the best case for characters talking (or thinking) about themselves for the audience’s benefit, but even then I know several novelists who firmly believe less is more and childhood flashbacks should be used with care. Would more detail about John McLane’s past have helped or hurt the movie Die Hard? Over on the Satellite Show I’ve already argued it would hurt, and it’s why I dread any thought of a modern remake. Somewhere along the line, the idea of implication as opposed to explication was lost, and movies started spoon-feeding to their audiences why we should care about the people in them, rather than letting them decide for themselves based on what’s actually happening in the story.
Long story short, even with my main cast of Zombie Ranch I’ve left a lot of things unsaid and a lot of mysteries unexplained, at least so far. If that choice makes them somehow seem shallower or two-dimensional, so be it, but I think there’s a good case to be made for the decision, both for the genre(s) inspiring the story and just in general. We all see stereotypes on our first meetings with new people, and judge from there based on the actions and reactions of those folk as we see them deal with life. There’s a sense of discovery in that journey, and I believe when that same sense is present in fiction, we recognize and appreciate it. We start in the shallow end, and progress deeper as we ease into the relationship.
Fiction will never truly be reality, but if you want your characters to come off as “natural”, no matter how crazy the setting, I think it’s worth keeping in mind.