Writing the Breakout Novel, Chapter 2: Creating Multidimensional Characters

by RS on September 11, 2015

As much as I love Corinne Sand, my protagonist, I noticed during the numerous revisions that she wasn’t quite as well-rounded as I thought. So what to do?

The Great Donald Maass, that literary wizard in dissecting what makes a breakout novel, writes the following about creating multidimensional characters:

One-dimensional characters hold limited interest because they are limited as human beings. The lack the complexity that makes real-life people so fascinating. In well-constructed fiction, a multidimensional character will keep us guessing: What is this person going to do, say, or think next? Furthermore, we are more likely to identify with them—that is, to see ourselves in them. Why? Because there is more of them to see.

Okay. I get it. Corinne needs more depth and, dare I say it, some character flaws.

In the set of exercises that accompanied this chapter, the challenge was to find Corinne’s defining quality—a trait that is prominent, but also come up with an opposing quality. I compiled a list of her predominant traits:

  • Cerebral
  • Pragmatic
  • Oblivious
  • Radical
  • Imaginative
  • Trusting
  • Gullible
  • Persistent
  • Aloof

It took me a while to narrow it down Corinne’s defining quality, but I finally settled that she’s too cerebral and distant. Then I wrote the following description in fairly general terms: When the reader first meets Corinne Sand, she is studying the image of a miner in Spanish Civil War poster. That first impression she gives is she’s cerebral with the tendency to live in her head and also the past.

The next task was to find the opposing quality, and once again I wrote the opposing traits.

  • Emotional
  • Romantic
  • Approachable
  • Warm
  • Paranoid
  • Conformist
  • Perceptive
  • Suspicious
  • Unresourceful
  • Stubborn

In this case, I felt emotional was the direct opposite of cerebral. What followed was another description: As a third generation red diaper baby, Corinne is idealistic, passionate about her political beliefs that reflect how she was raised by her Marxist grandparents. Their personal stories and those of their comrades during the Depression and the Blacklist stir feeling of sadness and anger for the unjust persecutions of their politics and idealism. Corinne’s fervor and depth of emotion for her fellow travelers are seen as extreme by her partner and colleagues.   

The exercise was repeated with each trait, followed by a paragraph that actively demonstrates these opposing qualities. The discovery: the opposite trait is more interesting to explore and write. The result of the exercise: two new scenes that added more depth to Corinne’s character.

Lessons learned:

  • Opposing traits can add more dimension to the character, but also to the story.
  • By adding more dimension to your character, you’re making them more human.
  • Surprise readers. Don’t make characters predictable, but volatile like real people.
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