2D, one note, characters

therapist

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Common complaints for characters are often 'two dimensional' or 'one note'. But why is that bad?

I just watched the film 'Nightwatcher' and the entire film revolves around a single character 'Lou Bloom'. The character doesn't undergo character change, and I would say relatively one-note and two dimensional. There's zero back story, or any explanation for him being the way he is. Yet I found him captivating (i'm sure i'm not alone), and one of my most memorable and favourite characters.

There are other examples of this: Sherlock Holmes comes to mind. Why do these characters work so well? And why does character writing advice seems to aim toward a more well rounded character with fleshed out backstory and who undergoes change?
 

HareBrain

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There are other examples of this: Sherlock Holmes comes to mind.

I certainly wouldn't call him 2D or one-note, though it's true he doesn't change much (which is partly a function of the format Conan Doyle was writing in).

Coincidentally, I was talking about this with a real-world friend yesterday. She likes characters that are always clearly themselves, and where change is therefore minimal. I can see how that works well for detective stories, where each one is somewhat self-contained, the focus is on the mystery, and character complexity and change might be a distraction (I definitely find that so when TV detective shows insist on giving the detectives tediously dysfunctional home lives).

What appealed to you about Lou Bloom?
 

therapist

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I can see how that works well for detective stories, where each one is somewhat self-contained, the focus is on the mystery, and character complexity and change might be a distraction
That makes sense to me too. But with 'Nightcrawler' we have only one main character, minimal change, yet the focus is more on him, rather than the plot. So why did that work?

What appealed to you about Lou Bloom?
I was constantly fascinated by him. I'm trying to pin it down. I'm not sure if it's subjective, but seeing someone operate without empathy while ruthlessly pursuing their goals, is interesting. Like a case study. Also, nearly every time Lou Bloom spoke and acted, he portrayed his character, and made me squirm with discomfort.

Heath Ledger's Joker; is another example. A universally liked character. There's no backstory (in the Dark knight film), and no character change, we don't want him to change because he is interesting. All these characters share certain traits: they are very different to the norm, are competent, and very active (all move the plot forwards). Any ideas why we enjoy characters like this?
 

Dan Jones

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I think that stories that tend towards the mythic (which The Dark Knight 100% does, as do many superhero stories) feature characters that in turn tend towards archetypes, which mean they become more representative of feelings, traits, cultural touchstones etc. More than that, archetypal characters tend to be distilled down to their purest essence, so that they cannot be distilled any more. In TDK the Joker is the archetypal agent of chaos; we recognise that in him because chaos, and the potential for chaos to suddenly and traumatically irrupt our own lives is a very real phenomenon. Joker is also that part of ourselves that, as Michael Caine says, "wants to watch the world burn." He's that shamelessly nihilistic part of ourselves that sometimes takes over our psyche when things turn sour. Batman is the archetypal counterpoint to that, of the warrior knight that overcomes the forces of chaos and resettles the world into some sort of functional order, even if it's at some cost to himself (which is sacrifice).

Even so, tellingly, at the end of TDK, he can't kill the Joker. And the Joker says, "You and me can do this forever." So Batman and Joker's endless face-off is representative of the constant face-off between chaos and order that goes on inside our own psyches throughout our lives. And the characters never change because if they did it'd dilute the powerful resonance they have.

Batman and Joker also represent another archetype; that of the warring brothers (most famously represented by Cain and Abel).

I don't know Nightcrawler but I'd guess that the character of Lou Bloom probably veers towards some sort of archetype. What do you think?

I definitely agree with HB about detective / mystery stories, where the mystery ought to take centre stage rater than the characters. The great detectives (Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple, Columbo, Marlowe etc) are all fully fleshed out and definitely not 2D, but they are merely the anchor point for the mystery. Inspector Clouseau may be the exception...
 

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You might not be using the term, two dimensional, correctly.

Two dimensional vs three dimensional characters
The characters that appear in stories are sometimes described as 'two dimensional' or 'three-dimensional' (2D or 3D). The metaphor is that of reality, that a three-dimensional character is somehow more realistic, whilst a two-dimensional person is flat and relatively lifeless.
 

The Judge

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I don't know that it's always helpful to transpose one's reactions to TV or film onto what is best for writing, since they are very different media. What may come across as one note and 2D on the page can easily be enlivened by a good actor showing more by means of body language and facial expression than is ever expressed in the script, and the use of clever lighting, editing and music can all enhance what might otherwise come across as poor characterisation.

In any event, achieving a well-developed character in a novel doesn't mean that on-the-page backstory and a definite character arc are always required. It's been a while since I've read the Holmes stories, but I'd argue he is portrayed as a 3D character without having much of his history set down nor in the way of an arc -- he acts, reflects, argues, gives opinions, is kind and also unkind. In short he behaves likes a real person with inner drives and conflicting moods, not as a robot or cardboard cut-out behaving and speaking in exactly the same way every time. To achieve 3Dness it helps if there's a sense of interiorality about the character, that he/she has needs and ambitions, desires and dislikes, even if those aren't addressed to any great extent in the writing.

I've found that old SFs tend to have more than their fair share of 2D characters, largely I imagine because the writers weren't actually interested in the people of the stories, they were solely concerned with the ideas behind the stories. Which was perhaps fine, then -- and is probably not unrelated to the fact that men with a scientific bent might not always have been the most acute observers and therefore portrayers of human behaviour. (It would be interesting to know how many SF writers from the 1940s-70s had problems with social interactions and/or picking up social clues as some on the autism/Asperger spectrum often have.) But it shouldn't be seen as an either/or dichotomy. It's perfectly possible to achieve well-rounded and recogniseable characters while also writing plausible and far-reaching science.

And why would anyone not want to write interesting characters?! Even if one's main concern is to write incredible science or to create wonderful worlds, surely one would wish to make every single part of the reading experience a good one!
 

Phyrebrat

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A book has hundreds of pages to explore character. A TV show or film has many more strictures in terms of time allocation to its cast.

I think it will stymie your (written) work if you rely on tv/film media comparisons.

That being said, there are countless well-developed characters in tv or film but I still think it’s an imprecise comparison beyond the simple use of archetypes as Dan has said.
 

therapist

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That's a fair point. But how does what we like in a film/TV character differ to what we like in a book character? I always assumed they were the same.

I guess for POV characters in books, their interesting internal world will be a major difference.
 

Dan Jones

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As you've filed this thread under writing discussion rather than book/ film discussion, I assumed you'd be approaching this question from a writerly perspective, but as you're talking about enjoyment of a character I'm not so sure. Are you asking for writing perspectives on this?

In any case...

But how does what we like in a film/TV character differ to what we like in a book character? I always assumed they were the same.
...I think, roughly speaking, they probably are the same. The things which attract us to characters, whether they are fully realised and go through a thoroughly believable arc of change, or whether they simply exist as an unchanging, archetypal symbol, is unlikely to differ much across media. The way they're presented, of course, is. As TJ says, film (and theatre) utilises lighting, direct expression, performance, make-up etc etc to create character, whereas books can give us internal and psychological insights; I don't think what we like in a character differs, but they way those things are conveyed certainly can be.
 

Wayne Mack

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Though I can't analyze how they do it, certain actors make their roles memorable; many times I will remember a certain character from a film or TV show long after I have forgotten the plot. Without the actor, a writer has to try and recreate those intangibles in a story. That is what gives a character depth, though I can't really put a finger on what 'it' is. In general, if a reviewer says a character is flat or is one- or two-dimensional, it means that the writer has failed to fully immerge the reader in the tale.
 

Astro Pen

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If a uniformed policeman comes to the door we don't need to know much about him as a person. If, on the other hand, a former mistress turns up on the doorstep we want to know all about her - the full dirt if possible.
But of course, in sci-fi, former mistresses don't turn up at the door because sci-fi is about the most dehumanising literary genre on the planet.
One could write a thesis on sci-fi as a manifestation of modernist ideology.
As with minimalist interior design, at first it may clear the mind but soon one longs for an old oak desk with ink stains and a battered chesterfield sofa.
I have a suspicion that it was the heartlessness and 'space opera' nature of much post war science fiction that led to the public switching allegiance to fantasy.


With the exception (intentionally) of one particular book I have worked hard to make my characters well rounded and in particular to make my lead players complex people with weaknesses of personality. I think that makes them much easier for readers to identify with and, I hope, 3D.
 

Jo Zebedee

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Hmmm. A lot of the sf I read does have mistresses turning up at the door. It doesn’t have to be a dehumanising genre - it’s all about what you choose to read in it.
as to the other, I like my characters real and murky and prefer it if even my secondary characters are fleshed out. But there are plenty of readers who don’t look for that, and that’s grand too.
 

therapist

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As you've filed this thread under writing discussion rather than book/ film discussion, I assumed you'd be approaching this question from a writerly perspective, but as you're talking about enjoyment of a character I'm not so sure. Are you asking for writing perspectives on this?
I just used Film characters as an example because it's more likely people are familiar with them. So yes I am mainly interested in writerly perspectives. But also just the theory of what makes a 'good' character.

In Sanderson's lectures he talks about the importance of character arcs, but then mentions 'iconic heroes' who don't have any arc (sherlock holmes). In Abercrombie's First Law—a writer known for good characterization—characters like Glokta, have virtually no character arc.

achieving a well-developed character in a novel doesn't mean that on-the-page backstory and a definite character arc are always required.

I feel like this goes against a lot of standard character 101 advice, but i'm beginning to realize is very true. Having a character that just feels alive seems more important.
characters that in turn tend towards archetypes, which mean they become more representative of feelings, traits, cultural touchstones etc. More than that, archetypal characters tend to be distilled down to their purest essence, so that they cannot be distilled any more.
I found this really interesting. I had never thought about that before. And it's pretty clear that Lou Bloom absolutely veers towards an archetype. How did you guess that?
 

Dan Jones

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I found this really interesting. I had never thought about that before. And it's pretty clear that Lou Bloom absolutely veers towards an archetype. How did you guess that?
I have a most magnificent answer to that question. Alas! There is far too little space here to write it down.

Just kidding. Archetypal characters are fairly common, and reasonably easy to spot. I've read a lot on myth in storytelling, and a fair bit on psychology / psychoanalysis, and they pop up fairly frequently (like, all the time).
 

paranoid marvin

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For me a 2 dimensional character is one who is entirely predictable, and who will (usually) have no background story or rationale for what they do.

Which isn't always a bad thing. Michael Myers for example is a really scary character because he is 2 dimensional
 

The Judge

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achieving a well-developed character in a novel doesn't mean that on-the-page backstory and a definite character arc are always required.

I feel like this goes against a lot of standard character 101 advice, but i'm beginning to realize is very true. Having a character that just feels alive seems more important.
I've only read a couple of how-to-write books and I've forgotten most everything I read there, so I've no idea what the standard advice is.

However, character arcs are definitely good things to consider since they will help give shape and resolution to a plot, with the possible exception of a detective novel. (Though even then it's not unreasonable to bring in some kind of arc, especially one that continues over a series, since most people do experience change over the course of several years.)

As for backstory, I think it's vital for a writer to know something of every characters' family and history, and for the main characters the writer should know practically everything, because every action those characters take, every thought they have, every utterance they make will in some way reflect on or have roots in their past. That doesn't mean the details of that history have to appear in the story, but they must inform the writing of that story.

But yes, make the characters live and seem real, and the rest can go hang.
 

Steve Harrison

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I'm not interested in character arcs or knowing everything about my characters (major or minor) before writing. I don't even have defined characters before I start a novel and instead I see who turns up and watch them develop as I go. I backfill their 'lives' as I get to know them and round them out during editing. I figure the story will shape them and that they will shape the story, which I find gives me a nice bit of internal writerly conflict in addition to what goes down on the page.

All I have to do* is make my characters appear real and relatable to the reader when I finish.

* 'All I have to do' makes it sound so simple! :giggle:
 

The Judge

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I'm not interested in character arcs or knowing everything about my characters (major or minor) before writing.

Oh, yes, just in case my earlier post is confusing, I should have made clear that the arcs and backstory aren't things I concoct before writing, but rather they grow organically as I learn about the characters as I write them. But at some point we need to know our characters well to enable them to be fully alive on the page.
 

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But of course, in sci-fi, former mistresses don't turn up at the door because sci-fi is about the most dehumanising literary genre on the planet.
Lois McMaster Bujold "A Civil Campaign" comes damn close to the former mistress turning up at the door. :giggle:
 

Littlelostelf

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This is such an interesting post. Almost every writers' guide stresses the importance of the journey arc of the main characters. Many insist that it is essential for the characters to undergo a transformation based on their wants and their needs. It does make for a truly satisfying story - I watched Shrek again and the journey arcs of the characters are phenomenal. However, I also have read novels where there is little visible change in the characters from beginning to end, yet these books are highly satisfying also. My question is, do you have to have this personal transformation to write a 'winner.' And does this make you more publishable? I would be intrigued to know your thoughts on this.
 

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