Wednesday, November 22, 2006

More on McKee and 3 Dimensional Characters

It's hard to know what to talk about from the McKee workshop this past weekend. My brain's still spinning and I haven't even opened the notebook I almost filled. I used up two pens.

With a day or two of hindsight... I don't think he said much entirely new to me, but I think concentrating so much intense information over a short period of time, using a consistent vocabulary, helped solidify some concepts for me. I hope. Maybe I’m still under the McKee cult induction spell.

As obnoxious and offensive as he is, I do think he’s intelligent and I think it's been a while since I've really felt challenged by someone in that way. Probably since University, or maybe since my stint as a researcher in California. I've missed using that part of my brain.

His section on creating 3 dimensional characters is what's sticking in my mind most right now. I think the reason this topic stuck out is because it's going to help me, I hope, with a particular problem I'm having right now.

Anyone who's been to more than one writers’ workshop has seen plenty of questionnaires and charts and various other techniques to help create fully developed characters. But really, most of these tools are about characterization, not core character values.
Don’t get me wrong, developing all those quirky details that make our characters interesting is important. But they aren’t core values. That is, how that character would behave under pressure.

McKee contends (and most writers would agree) that main characters need 3 dimensions. But I doubt many writers could define what they actually mean by 3 dimensional. Not flat? Realistic? Fully developed? All abstract explanations that aren’t really practical in helping to develop characters. What impressed me about McKee is that he actually suggests a definition for 3 dimensional characters.

Based on his definition, a character should have at least 3 major values that define them, that won’t change significantly during the course of the book. (except in an educational plot--which is the kind of story I write--and then one of them should move along the negative/positive scale over the course of the book.)

What excited me, was the idea that to make characters 3 dimensional, a writer should have their main characters display both the positive and negative sides of each of these 3 core values during the course of the story. I don’t know if I’ve thought of it this way before.

That is, if a protagonist is brave, we should see times when he/she is fearful. If a protagonist is kind, she should show hints of cruelty. If she’s self-assured, she should show moments of vulnerability. This helps creates a 3 dimensional character. A metaphor the reader will mistake for a real human being.

What I liked even better was his suggestion about secondary characters. He suggests they should be no more than 2 dimensional or they’ll take over, and that bit players should be one dimensional—display only one major core value. Also smart.

I know I have trouble creating secondary characters at times… either going too far or not far enough in their characterizations. I also know I’m not always purposeful in how I create them. (I think I have done this well at times… Sophia in my Miseducation story was very purposefully created to contrast April… But sometimes I just toss characters in because I need them to forward the plot.)

McKee’s suggestion was to create secondary characters which bring out different combinations of the positive and negative sides of your protagonist’s core values. In other words, secondary character A might bring out your protag’s vulnerable and kind side. B might bring out your protag’s brave but cruel side. And C might bring out her self-assured but fearful side. (Okay, that one might not make sense, but you get the idea.)

Let’s face it, we don’t behave the same way around everyone we know and neither should our characters. Some people know how to push our buttons and bring out our negatives sides. So, why not purposefully use your secondary characters to help you show the readers these traits in your protagonist. Smart.

I found this really exciting because in my current WIP I’ve been having a problem with the protag’s siblings. I keep changing my mind about how many sisters she has (one or two), what they’re like and how they’ve affected the protag’s life. (I know my protag’s life has always been overshadowed by her sister(s?) but how is the question I keep waffling on.) Also, I’ve changed my mind 3 times about what kind of subplot I should give the sibling(s?) to best enhance my main plot.

Haven’t figure it out yet, but I’m really feeling hopeful that McKee’s ideas will help. And soon. The GH deadline approaches. Ack!

Oh, and I saw the Bond film tonight. Great fun, yet not silly like some of the Bond films and what a sexy, sexy man.


Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a great post Maureen. It's giving me a lot to think about, especially since I'm in the middle of revising right now. I like the description of the different dimentions of the characters and showing both side (+ / -) to them. I'll have to play around with that today.

Wylie Kinson said...

Thought-provoking post...
Good things I can try to encorporate in my current wip.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful stuff.

Anonymous said...

I purchased Robert McKee's Story, but until that arrives your post was very informative. And yes, Daniel Craig is a very sexy Bond. I have several gorgeous pictures of him on my blog. I'm a sucker for gorgeous men.

Anonymous said...

Such a great post, Maureen. He way of explaining character was mind blowing at times.

and then connecting their traits to the secondary characters. Wow!

Can't wait to see Bond. I'm a fan of Bond, even, shudder, the Roger Moore Bonds, but Daniel Craig... I have a smile on my face just thinking about it.

Sara Hantz said...

Excellent post. I can't wait to see the new Bond, i have only heard good reports so far.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experience at this workshop. I'll put to use the information on three dimensional characters in my own WIP. I hate it when someone reads a scene and complains when someone does something out of character,claiming it makes the character "unlikable." Don't we all have unlikable traits?

I also share your view on Daniel Craig. Haven't seen Casino Royale yet--will savor it in the near future--but I like a man that rugged, who narrows his blue eyes better than Steve McQueen.

Maureen McGowan said...


That's the tricky bit in commercial and genre fiction... Showing the other side without turning the reader off. Difficult but possible, I think.

Personally, I think one of the keys is to not show the negative traits until later. Let the reader see the true character first.

'Course, this is a problem for "educational" plots where turning a negative trait to a positive is the point of the book.... But still possible.

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