So, recently I was thinking about “one-dimensional” characters versus “well-rounded,” “complex,” “well-developed” characters, and how the former are treated as Bad and the latter treated as Good.
From time to time this presumed dichotomy leads to some slightly odd outcomes if you read book reviews, as quite a lot of reviewers will read a book they like and write a review in which they refer to the characters as well-rounded or complex or whatever, even if the characters are no such thing. This happens because the reviewer assumes that Good Characters Must Be Well Rounded, so if they like the characters, then those characters obviously are well rounded. Conversely, reviewers who hate that same book may (correctly) declare that the characters are one dimensional, without realizing that in that particular story, well-rounded characters are not the point and would actually not suit the story that’s being told.
I’m not sure this can be clear without using specific examples, so here we go.
1. As you know, recently I read and enjoyed Cry Pilot by Joel Dane. I said in my review that many of the characters are one-dimensional, which they are. That was not intended as a complaint.
Here are some relevant comments from Amazon reviews:
From reviewer Alan Blank, who gave the book three stars: “Maseo Kaytu is arguably well fleshed out by the book’s end, but the majority of the remaining characters are bit too thin, and frankly almost stock characters from old war movies or other books in this sub-genre.”
From reviewer Dave Walker, who gave the book five stars: “Very well written with a tight plot and incredible character development.”
Alan Blank is, in my opinion, correct. But these characters feel satisfying to the majority of readers . . . let me see, 91% four or five star reviews at the moment . . . because the characters fit the story.
The characters ARE one-dimensional. They do not, however, read as though they are flat as long as the reader enjoys the plotting and worldbuilding elements and finds Kaytu himself engaging. Three elements make the use of one-dimensional secondary characters appropriate and useful:
First, Maseo Kaytu is the focal character. This is a strict first-person narrative. The reader is supposed to focus on Kaytu, who has been given certain very strong character traits. He is not himself a complicated character either. Instead, he is a strong character. He has a smallish number of driving motivations that are extremely powerful and sometimes in conflict, and which he often but not always understands himself. For example, Kaytu’s most central characteristic is loyalty to the group. He’ll sacrifice himself for the group and for individuals within the group; he won’t sacrifice the group for some abstract mission objective. That’s what makes him engaging and sympathetic to the reader, who might not be all that keen on reading about a sociopath (I know I wouldn’t be). He knows this about himself and – setting up tension – considers it a weakness to overcome, not a virtue. Kaytu serves as a great protagonist because he’s introspective enough to make a good first-person narrator, but not broadly informed or extremely intelligent, and definitely not objective enough that he’s capable of figuring everything out, so by using his perspective, the author keeps the reader guessing. But the important thing here is that he is not complex; he is instead effectively drawn in broad strokes.
Second, there are a lot of other characters in this story, most of whom are not important or at least are certainly not supposed to draw attention away from Kaytu (except Ting, to an extent). The reader might have trouble telling the large cast of secondary characters apart if they didn’t each have some clear, defining characteristic, so the author gives each of them one such characteristic and leaves it at that. Then he puts more emphasis on the interaction among the characters and particularly on how Kaytu perceives them and reacts to them, which keeps the focus on the protagonist. Something interesting happens as the group goes through training: they become supportive of the weaker members of the group, and in my opinion, Kaytu himself is at the heart of that interaction. He is completely focused on getting the team to succeed as a team; he’s the one who would naturally, even instinctively, focus on hauling the weaker members of the team through tough situations. I strongly suspect the group would not have clicked together as it did without him.
Third, this story is world-driven and plot-driven more than character-driven. I’m mostly a character reader, sure, but I like world development too, and I care about writing style. Cry Pilot has characters who are clearly delineated and who don’t need to be deeply complex in order to carry the plot and show off the world. Handing Kaytu deep motivations and everyone else identifiable characteristics works well for this story. Insisting on adding complexity to all the characters wouldn’t improve this story.
To nail down this point, let me mention a handful of other good stories – many of them great stories – that you may be familiar with, which also feature simple, clear characters that are not complex or well-rounded.
1. The Lord of the Rings. This is a venue novel that is showing off the world, and it’s plot-driven, or you could say theme-driven. The characters are simple. Not a single character is complex, except maybe Faramir. This is not a weakness of the story. It’s just a feature of the story, one that appeals to some readers and doesn’t appeal to other readers, but either way a feature that suits the story being told.
2. Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell. This duology is the one that first prompted me to declare that good characters may be one-dimensional and that sometimes this is exactly right for the story. Ah, I will add that these are very intense novels, and include possibly the worst situation I’ve ever seen in a fantasy or SF novel, so don’t pick them up lightly. Also, no, the biology is not plausible.
3. The fantastic Illumini trilogy by Kaufman and Kristoff. These fast-paced, witty, highly entertaining novels are crammed with excitement. Character development is neither present nor needed in these action-packed, plot-driven stories. The characters are mostly simple and one-dimensional. I can think of one exception. At the moment, I can only think of the one exception even though the cast is huge.
4. The Martian by Andy Weir is a fantastic story that has essentially no character development from front to back; and in fact if Weir had tried to develop his protagonist, that would have detracted from the world-driven, plot-driven, science-first story. Watching someone have a nervous breakdown because of isolation and stress was emphatically not the point, so it didn’t happen – it was never even hinted at. If it had, the novel would have been entirely different and (for me) a lot less appealing. Instead of character development, we got lots of sciency lectures. Great novel. Good movie too.
Now, let’s take one example of the reverse situation: a story that gives enormous attention to the development of complex characters. I’ll just use the first story of this kind that comes to mind, which happens to be the Eternal Sky trilogy by Elizabeth Bear.
Now, in this fabulous trilogy, there are so many pov characters who are fascinating, complex, thoroughly developed and so on that I wound up almost frustrated because I wanted a whole story just with that character. This was especially true with Yangchen, the queen who betrayed her country and then tried so hard to redeem that mistake. This is a trilogy for the character reader who also likes worldbuilding and, of course, lush prose, but wow, the whole story would have been entirely different with simpler characters.
I doubt that in this case too many reviewers complained about one-dimensional characters. You know what they’re going to complain about instead?
a) It’s too slow.
b) It’s too complicated.
c) Two many pov characters, switches from one to the next too frequently.
Let me just look now at Amazon reviews — I’m looking just at three-star reviews. And what do I find?
Scott Wozniak, “This story is way too slow. It was literally 1/3 of the book before any of the protagonists decided to take strong action–around 112 pages of 334. It’s hard to like characters that are walking with no plan (Temur) or waiting to see if they have magic power (Samarkar).”
Melanie D Typaldos, “For me, there were too many characters and their names were too weird, with some of the names being very similar. Plus she switches POV frequently. I find all of that confusing.”
It’s a tradeoff — an unavoidable tradeoff — and it’s why there are different ways to tell stories and they work for different reasons and please different readers.
One reviewer does complain even regarding the Eternal Sky trilogy — a story I picked to typify complex characters — that the characters are flat. This is, I think, an example of the phenomenon I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I suspect this reviewer disliked the characters and therefore concluded they must be flat, rather than actually responding to flatness as such. If asked, “Why did you find the characters flat?” I think probably this reviewer would wind up explaining why they disliked the characters or found them unbelievable, which would not involve lack of complexity.
Dimensions along which we can view characters without requiring a value judgment about how well-drawn or well-written the characters may be:
Simple …. Complex
Unpleasant …. Sympathetic
Dimensions which necessarily include a value judgment about the writing:
Unbelievable …. Believable
Boring …. Interesting
When writing reviews — or for that matter, thinking about whether a book or a character did or did not work for me — something I try to do is separate whether I liked the character personally from whether the character is suited to the story and well-drawn.
For me, characters that work have to be sympathetic and interesting, but do not necessarily need to be believable. Simple or complexity of the character, or development of the character through the course of the story, doesn’t necessarily matter to me. That’s why I can very much enjoy stories with zero character development like The Martian and also stories where the character development is central, as with Yangchen in The Eternal Sky trilogy.