I’m continuing the Hugo/Nebula analysis in terms how useful those books are as cues to successful writing. This time, I’m moving on to another important writing rule: Your Characters Must Be 3-Dimensional. They have to seem like real people with real problems, real strengths, real skills, and real weaknesses. Newbie writers get a good bonk on the head if they
fail at this for writing “cardboard cutouts.”
Again, the rule is understandable. I’ve read many books with characters that are as interesting as plain cardboard. Some writers try too hard to make characters interesting, and as a result, they clutter up the story with information no one needs or wants to know or they get an unbalanced character with all strengths and no weaknesses. That makes giving them a real challenge difficult. I’ve also read books with characters that worked too hard to be interesting in a different way, like “good guys” who did things so morally reprehensible, they were no better than the bad guys.
No, I do not expect good guys to be squeaky clean, but there should be a consequence – internal or external – for bad behavior. Some of the books I read for this challenge will go in my discard pile because the lead characters are either uninteresting or unlikable. The “good guy” who was an abusive womanizer with a foul mouth? That didn’t serve the story, and made him totally unlikeable. Into the bin with that one. The “good guy” who lied, cheated, stole, and harmed others to get ahead? That one went into the bin, a long time ago, too. Even though it served the story, he got kudos for acting like a jerk. Not impressed.
So, the lesson here? Do make your characters interesting, but everything must serve the story. If you complicate the characters too much, they become less interesting. Some of that excessive details is handy to keep in your notes in case you do run into a situation in which that particular quirk will be handy, but some parts of your notes need to stay in your notes unless they’re necessary. Keeping your main characters likeable or identifiable is also a great idea.