So, as you may have picked up from my reviews over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been on a bit of a mythos kick and going through a lot of cosmic horror stories. I’m almost done with my backlog of those and then I’ll probably go back to a combination of historical references and maybe some science fiction to break things up, since prior to this I was on a straightforward fantasy binge. I do this from time to time; when I read horror I tend to be in a mood for a week or two and consume nothing but it and then I get tired of the genre and withdraw to something else.
Part of it, and I am not saying it’s specific to horror but it’s certainly endemic here, is the low-dimensional characters that tend to populate horror stories.
This post is going to be one of those weird mashups about both reading and writing and the interplay between both.
A post about mechanics, basically. The figurative dynamos and turbines that get stories running and keep them running in your head. This is stuff that bothered me about certain stories and I couldn’t quite put a finger on why until I started writing and having to understand the core elements of character growth in a way that bridges the gap between art and science. Because yeah, writing has kind of a mysticism about it and you’re creating things wholesale out of your head and putting them on paper and causing other people to share your vivid hallucinations with the power of language, but there are scientific perimeters to it. Mathematics even. Rules, rules that you can break but you need to acknowledge and master first, because breaking them is a statement in and of itself that colors the tone of a story.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Low-dimensional characters. One and two. Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.
One-dimensional characters you can probably picture in your head. These are the cartoon supervillains of 80s and 90s Saturday mornings, before animators across the US realized it was actually okay to sell toys to children and try to tell a fun story at the same time. These are characters entirely defined by one desire. Not one trait, one thing that they want. You can take a one-dimensional character and disguise it as something higher by piling on a lot of traits to make them more unique, but it still feels very hollow because they are defined by a single want. The character declares he or she wants something, they declare that, and then they move towards it and do not stop. They exist to further the plot in the worst way, and here’s what really sucks about them: they will either be tiresome and predictable, or awkwardly inconsistent when they deviate from that want as the plot demands. There is a place for these characters, and that is in certain stylized comedy or pastiche stories intentionally playing off how one-dimensional they are, but frankly even those are improved by having at least two-dimensional characters. One-dimensionals are particularly rife in horror as a genre because a lot of horror writers are more concerned with showing you the monsters and the gore than making you care about the characters. Lovecraft is like, the grandfather of this style. Most of his protagonists are interchangeable and serve as a viewing portal to look at the cosmic horrors hidden to the common man. It’s why even enjoying Lovecraft I find him tedious to read back to back to back.
Two-dimensionals are where it gets more interesting. They aren’t quite fully formed characters and you never want to have one as a protagonist, but they’re good tertiaries. My rule of thumb is that any character who does something to further the plot or who gets a name should have at least two dimensions. These guys tap into a fundamental element of human nature and social interaction, which is the self versus the mask. We all have at least one mask, it’s the face we display to other people, and it’s never going to be a 1:1 for our inner self because that self is impossible to display in its entirety, at least most of the time and for most people. Some have a lot of masks, one for each circle of friends or acquaintances they interact with. If you’re a visual person like me it’s intensely helpful to think of what mask your character might be wearing at any given time and how it colors their interactions and dialogue with others even while their internal thoughts and voice remain consistent and true. These are characters who, like us, do not blatantly announce everything they want and then move towards it. They lie by omission, hedge bets, compromise, subtly negotiate, protect themselves by not demonstrating some of their basic personality traits if showing them would damage their mask. This creates a subtle tension in the characters even in scenes where there isn’t something big and tense happening like a gunfight or a negotiation.
Two-dimensionals are also where you get to tap into those powers of observation and people-watching you’ve been honing as a writer, by which I mean harnessing every time you’ve made yourself into a neurotic wreck wondering what someone else thinks of you even while you attempt to play it cool on the outside, trying to tell exactly what every little gesture and pause really means as you smile and laugh. Or I guess just casual observation, if you’re into that. This is where you’re writing a pretty bog-standard interview scene for a character and suddenly remember that time a friend told you about one of her interviews fresh out of university where she didn’t try on her new pantyhose before going and halfway through the interview noticed them gradually riding down her ass and she desperately wanted to reach down and pull them up but the interviewer would not turn away for more than a second at a time, and boom you’ve stolen your friend’s awkwardness and turned it into a little scene that could be played for tension or laughs while demonstrating at least two voices for your character: the inner nervous and embarrassed voice and the outer confident interviewee voice.
These are characters who want more than one thing or present themselves as wanting something a little different than what they actually want. You can do a lot by making their wants conflict with one another. The one-dimensional wants the girl. The two-dimensional wants money and the girl, and all of a sudden has to pick between them.
Now, you can use two-dimensionals as protagonists and I have seen it done before, but eventually I believe they will wear a little thin because there’s only so much conflict you can draw out of them. They work best as set dressing where you need other characters present but they won’t be around long enough to justify you writing up an elaborate background story for each one.
This is where the three-dimensionals come in. These characters are almost exactly like two-dimensionals but with one major difference: besides the masks and the inner self, they also have the denied self. This is the thing (or things) you lie to yourself about. This is the character who overcompensates without really acknowledging what they’re compensating for in the first place. The denied aspect if usually a result of their backstory and personality and it’s where you need to put a lot of your character building, because it subtly drives their actions. The core concept here is that the mask is the personality that you construct for others and the self is the personality you construct for… well, yourself. But it’s a coating over other, deeper wants and conflicts that may drive you without even knowing it. I’m not going to go full Freud or Jung here, you can choose to go down those particular rabbit holes in your own time (spoiler alert: Freud is dicks all the way down) but it’s something that you should be considering when you build your characters.
Three-dimensional characters almost always end up with desires that conflict with one another, and a lot of the time this ties into their denied self. Frodo puts on a mask of bravery for his friends and wants to throw the ring into Mount Doom. Frodo tells himself he’s scared and tired but wants to throw the ring into Mount Doom. But Frodo doesn’t actually want to throw the ring into Mount Doom when it comes right down to it. There’s more conflict between his constructed self and his true desire than there is between him and any external antagonist like Gollum, and you can make the argument that that’s because the ring has fused with or twisted that true desire.
Finally, and this is something that is usually incorporated without even realizing it, three-dimensional characters tend to have an ethical/moral/value system of some sort stemming from their background. This is usually tied into the denied self some way. These are the characters who will not kill even if they really want to and any jury in the world would call it justified. These are the characters who fuck themselves over because they had put limits on the path they will take to their desire, and if they break those limits it will put them in a state of existential crisis.
Sam Vimes from Discworld is one of my favorite examples of this. He is a renegade cop stereotype who refuses to go renegade. His mask is cantankerous old Vimes, always trying to think one step ahead and make a good example for his watchmen. His constructed self is frantically trying to keep up with the case. His true self is essentially Dirty Harry, and he has very carefully built a series of rules and perimeters that he will not broach, because he recognizes that once he allows the true self to kill in the name of “justice,” it will be easier to justify more and more in the future. His gut instinct is that these people don’t even deserve a trial, but his constructed self is a watchman he created to serve as warden to his own worst impulses and it makes every single scene where he might need to kill incredibly tense and heartbreaking because you know that his conscious and unconscious are having a screaming fistfight with one another under the surface. Batman is another version of this too, he recognizes on some level that if he starts killing he’ll probably never stop. There have been variations on this where he does kill but he refuses to use guns because the idea is too traumatizing after seeing his parents shot in front of him, but what I’m really pointing at here is the internal conflict that makes the character’s actions a struggle.
A one dimensional character wants the girl. A two dimensional character has to choose between the girl and the money. A three dimensional character has to choose between the girl and the money and his constructed self says go for the girl while his darker, denied self says that money can buy you more girls and a yacht, which places it in conflict with the rules he’s set up for how he pursues his wants. He faces his ultimate tests when two of his values come into conflict with one another and that conflict his colored by his past up until that point.
This is why Stephen King is so successful and eminently readable. Even his bit characters are three-dimensional and the worst people he writes about are either creating that face to show others for some reason or they have stopped denying the inner self and we are treated to the consequences of that.
I believe all of this is useful as a reader as well as a writer, mainly because it reminds you to look deeper into the characters you already enjoy. Becoming aware of the masks allows you to appreciate when authors put a lot of effort into crafting them.
So, speaking of cosmic horror and well-crafted characters, the latest book I finished up was John Langan’s The Fisherman. It takes something really special to mess me up and Langan is good at doing so. His short stories are some of my favorites in the genre and The Wide Carnivorous Sky managed to make the outdoors feel claustrophobic, but this is a step above and beyond anything else he’s written before. It’s full of those three-dimensional characters I spoke so much about, which means that you care about pretty much everyone inside and you’re privy to not just their day to day lives but their hidden wants and desires. Langan has a real ear for prose and makes the horror almost poetic. It’s the kind of horror story where I can’t get into the plot too much without spoiling the best parts, but here’s my best try: two men lose their wives to illness and accident within a few years of each other and turn to fishing together as kind of a joint coping mechanism, despite their age difference and radically dissimilar backgrounds. The desire to fish in new and interesting places sends them on a collision course for a creek with a bad history and horrible secrets in its depths. The story bounces between their modern day trip and flashbacks to the early 1900s, when a family of recent immigrants find themselves up against a seemingly ageless and malevolent stranger who has “come fishing” for something terrible. It’s a story of broken bones shifting inside of bodies that shouldn’t be moving any longer, flat yellow eyes with pinhole pupils, fishing lines stretching out into a black ocean that shouldn’t exist. Most importantly it’s a story about loss and grief and both good and bad ways to deal with those things. Most of the horror is tied up in wanting to see what happens to these people, which to me is what makes for the best kind of scary story. The monsters are impressive and the cosmicism is vast in scope but what kept me turning the pages was wanting to see what effect they would have on the characters caught in their path.