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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Adding Dimension OR NO Cardboard Characters Allowed

The next exercise in The Breakout Novel Workbook is about adding dimension to your MC. Some books you read, (popular, successful books) the MC is so one dimensional that if you took her out of her setting and tried to figure out what she would do, say, if she got stuck in an elevator, or if she missed a flight and had to sleep in the airport, you couldn't. You just don't know enough about that character to imagine her in any other situation (and maybe you have trouble imagining her in her current situation.) This is a Flat Stanley character and it cannot be allowed to happen in your book.

Flat Stanley in NY
For me the hardest part is excavating those extra dimensions. The only way to dig them out is to ask questions. Would she give up her subway seat for a pregnant lady? Would she apologize first in a fight - would she rather eat dirt than apologize, even if she was in the wrong? These kind of questions (and the many-layered answers you get) give a fuller picture of your MC. So when you're ready to put her in absurd, dangerous, tense situations, you know she'll be active, not passive. You'll know exactly how she'll react.

In this exercise, Maass asks, "What is your protagonist's defining quality? how would anyone describe your  protagonist?" For my MC, Mop, I think this is a little tricky because she hides herself. I don't think anyone but her best friend and her mom would know that her defining quality is tenacity. All the changes that have rocked her young life has made her averse to change and she's shaped herself to be as constant as she can. It's the only thing she thinks she can control.

Now, says Maass, what's the opposite of that quality? Accepting, yielding. Those are two things that Mop would have difficulty doing. There are superficial things that she can be passive about, but when you get to the core of her, there are some things that she cannot let go. Though I knew this about her, putting it into words makes me realize that this quality and it's opposite is going to get her into trouble.

Finally, as a follow up (because, can you really have too many dimensions to your MC?) define a secondary character quality. That's easy for Mop, because she's already displayed it: Curiosity. Not the run of the mill kind, but the kind that doesn't let her go to sleep when there's a question she can't answer. Her tenacity and her curiosity sometimes pull her in different directions.

So, how well do you know your MC? Is he really multi-dimensional or is he a bit, flat?


10 comments:

  1. Interesting that you would blog about this today as I've been thinking a lot about how to pump up one of my secondary characters who's as flat as a tire. ^_^

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    1. Angelina - I've got a couple of flat-tire characters around too! I think that in my head I know their dimensions, but I'm not showing it in the ms.

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  2. I love this post. So, so helpful! I have Maass' book and for some ridiculous reason haven't really gotten to it. Must remedy that soon! :)

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  3. This is definitely something I need to give more thought to with my WIP. Thanks, Alex. :)

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    1. Colin - I know! It's something that, in the past, I've gone back in after the first draft to try to fix. It's so much better to give dimension to the characters now, though it slows the process down. I'm learning!

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  4. Great post - I've been working on my secondary characters as I go back through this revision - I love complex people in real life, so why not in fiction?

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  5. Great post, Alex. Always important to have a firm idea of your character's "tragic flaw." Love doing this exercise and thinking "Man, this is gonna get him/her into some serious trouble." Helps get my mind-wheels turning. *taps fingers evilly*

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    1. L.C - that's what I love about this book vs. other writing books that start before you start writing. This book takes what you're already in the middle of and makes you think, "I need to add more misery and strife to my MC." Which is totally fun (cue maniacal evil laughter)

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  6. I like the part about realizing that your character's defining quality (and its opposite) are going to drive the story in some ways. It is nice to keep this in mind that connection in moving forward. I'm writing my first literary fiction, and without the plot devices I'm used to employing, I'm really struggling to find something to hang onto as I go forward. This helps. :)

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