Hey man, I know it’s hard. You’re sitting down at the keyboard, busting out your latest masterpiece, and you’re thinking:
“Man, characterization is tough! What if I just did it for my protagonist and no one else?”
Most of you are laughing right now, and I know why. It sounds like I’m ranting about something that no one does. Strange, I recall reading a two dozen short stories and four novels in the last three years that did exactly this. Just recently, I complained about it in my review of the Tomorrow Project. This problem rises most often in literary novels or in short fiction of any stripe. When compression takes priority, characterization flags. So you have one character left, and since he has no one interesting to talk to, he just talked to himself. Laziness has driven you into the monologue corner.
So you characterize another one. Now you’ve got two round characters, bouncing off each other and helping keep the story moving. So what happens when I don’t like one? Do I read on because I really like the other character? Nope. More like I finish reading out of duty, and then write an article about it how you shouldn’t do that ever again.
Before I go further, let’s talk about “like”. Today, John William Dye and I chatted about Carrie. Stephen King’s first novel took six page-turning hours for me to read today.
John said he liked the book, but hated Carrie. I was shocked. Frankly, I loved Carrie. I empathized with her, and saw her actions as a totally predictable extension of her upbringing, temperament and environment. So I demanded clarification on why he hated her. His reasons: that she was mean-spirited, gullible, and socially unintelligent, were the very reasons why I loved her.
John then suggested we make a distinction between hating a character because they’re poorly written and hating a character because of their flaws. Good plan. (Let’s note that John hated her for the latter reason. He found her to be a reprehensible human being.)
I view characters in a novel as different than people I’d meet out and about. I’d never chill with Carrie White, but I don’t hate her. Because she’s a fiction, and in her shoes, with her powers, I’d probably have done the same thing. So I said I like her. I say I like or don’t like characters, but what I really mean is that I feel that they were poorly or well-written, and interesting or uninteresting.
So this is the crux of my argument. You’ve made one or two characters interestingly rounded.
Stephen King didn’t just make Carrie interesting, though. Everyone on the page had their own little quirks, secret worries, private lives and ambitions, their own weight. None of King’s characters in Carrie felt stock.
Let’s move off of Carrie. What about the hit series, Dexter? Personally, I don’t like the protagonist. I do like his step-sister Deb, and Dokes, the actual freaking good guy in the show. They’ll keep me watching even as Dexter stumbles from failure to failure, just wholeheartedly sucking at being a sociopath.
Alright. What about Flash Gordon, where numerous characters are stock. Even so, we’re given Princess Aura and Doctor Zarkov, side characters that hold my interest better than the protagonist or his tepid-water love-interest. And that’s Science Fiction done poorly!
Let’s talk Star Trek, or Star Wars. Star Trek because I don’t want to talk about Lucas and the Disney buyout. Yeah, Star Trek!
Let’s say you hate Kirk. There’s still hope to enjoy Scotty, McCoy, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, or Chekov. Star Trek’s cast is a semi-automatic filled with live ammo. A short story about two people in a car racing towards a hospital, with four flat characters, on the other hand, is loading a revolver with two live rounds and four blanks, then slamming the hammer and hoping you nail your target. That’s right. For those live rounds, you still gotta aim.
What if one of your round characters is an atrocious waste of breath? Ow. You grazed my shin. Who taught you to aim, anyways? Goku?
Go the full-auto approach. Yeah, it takes more work, but then if I think your protagonist falls flat, I can’t help but observe that all your side characters come together to make up for her. I’ll acknowledge it as a well-intended failure, or a resonance issue that the story has with me personally, rather than the laziness of a writer who preferred to worry about his protagonist’s inner monologue far more than the external events that make all that from becoming just so much navel-gazing and philosophical masturbation.