This week we are are exploring how to create four dimensional characters. Over the past month or so, I have been doing a series on the seven archetypal characters that exist in the narrative world. I just wanted to go a little deeper in relation to character creation as characters are the most important narrative elements in the storyworld. But the quality or appeal of a story depends on whether a character is flat or fully developed – or four dimensional.
As opposed to the visuality that is provided by television, theatre and film, a literary work is dependent on the skill of a writer to create dynamic ‘word pictures’ that describe the characters. As we only have the words on a page (except for digital storytelling) to offer our reader a mental picture of our characters, learning how to create four dimensional story characters is an essential strategy for writers.
Drawing upon Vladimir Propp and other narratology specialists, four dimensional characters are those who have a two-fold function within the narrative. They can be distinguished between: “an acteur” (actor) (Kozloff 1987, p. 53) – a specific individual with certain characteristics specific to him or her, (for example, the character Kramer in Seinfeld, he has a certain hairstyle and mannerisms or mode of behaviour that makes him unique), and their “actantal function” (1987, p. 53) – their particular role in the narrative.
Just like the primary characters – the hero and the villain, and the secondary characters – aka the princess, the dispatcher, donor, helper and false hero – they are all defined by their individual “sphere of action” (Lacey 2000 p. 51).
Modern day characterisation is dependent upon characters that combine their “actantal” position or “sphere of action” (2000, p. 51) in the narrative as well as their individual characterisation and distinctive idiosyncrasies (modes of behaviour).
Creating four dimensional characters
Creating a character is like painting a picture. An artist begins with nothing but a blank white canvas. After a brainstorming session he begins with a rough sketch of the landscape or portrait, and slowly bit by bit he begins the more complex process of the careful application of paint or whatever art medium he chooses. Once this process is completed, the finished product is finally revealed.
No. 1. A character’s physical description
When we begin to plan our story in front of our computer screen or a blank sheet of paper, a detailed description of a character serves as the first step in the process of creating a character. Although story characters are primarily fictional, we want them to be as real as possible so that the reader can draw a parallel between the character and a real life person as a point of reference.
Details of a character’s physical appearance or style of clothing helps to create narrative interest. As we live in a visual culture, and in order to keep books alive, we need to provide our reader with a external description of the character to hold their attention. Also, providing a character’s description gives the reader a mental picture of the character and helps the reader to differentiate between characters.
No. 2. Characterisation: the personality of a character
Just like real people are often remembered by their distinctive personalities and odd idiosyncrasies, so are fictional characters. The villain is known for his manic or sadistic personality, and the hero is known for his brave and noble nature. But to go a step further – characters may have a distinctive way of speaking or they may display strange physical mannerisms – think of Han Solo as the easygoing and wise cracking pilot of the Millennium Falcon or Kramer in Seinfeld with his strange gesticulations.
No. 3. Characters do not exist in a narrative void
Most narratives have at least three characters and these characters do not exist in a narrative void. Like us, they interact with one another, and they provide observations about other characters. The 90s sitcom Friends is a good example of character interaction, and The Lord of the Rings book and films.
Through character interaction we learn about a character’s perception of other characters and their interpersonal relationships provide the reader with that extra dimension. Characters do not just sprout sonnets or ramble on with meaningless dialogue, they reveal important secrets, they share knowledge and their words can influence our speech patterns –think of the plays of William Shakespeare or the almost immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films – “I’ll be back”.
No. 4. A character’s inner world
Just like in real life, the inner world of a character can remain much of a mystery. In the world of film or television, if we are not given any dialogue or a voice-over monologue, we can only surmise what characters are thinking by their facial expressions. Sometimes the camera will linger on an actor’s face and we as the voyeur are invited to try to discern what lies beneath. If the actor has considerable skill, discerning their secret thoughts is an easy job.
But when it comes to revealing the secret inner world of characters, I believe it is the humble book that is superior to other forms of storytelling media. A writer can utilize the techniques of a ‘internal monologue’ or ‘streams of consciousness’ – two invaluable tools that can provide intimate access to a character’s worldview, values, and thought life.
A snapshot of a four dimensional character.
James Baldwin’s short story ‘Previous Condition’ provides a great example of how ‘streams of consciousness’ can give a reader intimate access into the heart and mind of a character. Through the main character, Peter, we have unmitigated access to his external and more importantly his interior world through his ‘streams of consciousness’ or ‘internal monologues’. We learn about his conflicted past as a child growing up in a poor African-American community and his fear and anger that is caused by the racial tension and discrimination of his present situation as a young out-of-work actor in 1950s New York.
A ‘flashback’ also serves as a conduit through which the reader perceives that Peter’s feelings have been simmering under the surface for some time. Peter is a ticking time bomb, and his repressed anger is ultimately externalized towards the end of story via his dialogue with his two friends, Jules and Ida. But the bulk of the story is limited to Peter’s perspective through his ‘internal monologues’. Many people would find this kind of storytelling boring and not very riveting. But Baldwin does it so well that he makes the reader feel as if they are right there in Peter’s tumultuous world and experiencing his claustrophobic and fear-driven existence.
See Baldwin’s story here:
The world of 21st century film and television provides us with a plethora of dynamic characters. Foxtel features the slogan ‘100% characters’ when they promote new and continuing programs. Australian ‘free-to-air’ television has also jumped on the ‘character bandwagon’ as Channel Nine’s digital channel GEM promotes itself as the place where great ‘Characters Belong’.
Other examples of four dimensional characters.
Characters like Inspector Lewis, Inspector Lynley or Hercule Poirot are good examples of four dimensional characters that have now become part of our popular culture. All of these characters have a backstory, distinctive personalities and appearances.
If you are an emerging or aspiring creative writer, a helpful learning task outlined below is to analyze a character when you reading about them in a book, or watching them on screen. Your characters are the lifeblood of your story and more often than not they are the narrative elements that will linger in your reader’s memory. One thing I can guarantee as a fellow storyteller, if you learn how to create four dimensional story characters – you will become a master of great storytelling!
When you are reading a book or watching a film or a television program, start an analysis exercise.
What is the character’s role in the story?
What makes them distinctive – do they have a particular idiosyncrasy (mode of behaviour or mannerisms)?
How do you know what the characters are thinking – is there a ‘internal monologue’, or a voice over narration?
Are the characters flat and do not experience change or are they complex ‘four dimensional’ characters who undergo a transformation throughout the narrative?
Write a short story with two or three characters. Use the four techniques mentioned in the blog above and create your own four dimensional characters. Create a backstory for them: their past, their personality or mannerisms, and their relationship with other characters.
Baldwin, James 1948, ‘Previous Condition’, Understanding Fiction 2005, Roof, Judith, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York, pp. 164-175.
Kozloff, Sarah Ruth 1987, ‘Narrative Theory and Television’ in Robert C. Allen (ed.), Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism, Routledge, London.
Lacey, Nick 2000, Narrative and Genre: Key concepts in Media Studies, Houndmills: Macmillan.