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In defense of one-dimensional characters - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
In defense of one-dimensional characters
I just got a Shifts review which was kind, but which also took me to task for not developing Snape as fully as I developed Peter, and it set me to thinking about the issue. The truth is, I didn't especially develop Peter--he's got a backstory quirk or two, and that's about it--but, yeah... I gave him more page space than I gave Snape, and more motivation.

Why?

It's not that I don't have Snape backstory. I did a fairly extensive one for him in Of A Sort and "Invisible." But I didn't bring it into Shifts at all. Nor do I believe I should have.

Not every character in every story can or should be fleshed out. When the character is peripheral to the story (as Snape is to Shifts), spending time on developing him beyond tics develops expectations that aren't going to be met. While Snape's ambiguous morality annoys Remus (the POV and central character in the story), it's not something that comes into play as a plot point. Snape has several appearances in the story, mainly doing precisely what he did in OotP, but they're strictly plot points, not points of serious character interaction, for the simple reason that Snape isn't present for any pivotal moment in Shifts (except in spirit after the conversation about the Pensieve incident, at which point Remus duly thinks about him). Peter uses him to try and drive a wedge into the Order by goading Remus, but that's about Peter and Remus--and, to some extent, Dumbledore--more than it's about Snape. Snape just isn't there. Peter has more of an impact on the plot. Heck, Narcissa has more of an impact on the plot, and she gets less development than Snape, because Remus doesn't feel any need to angst about her at any time.

So, say I went in and started randomly dropping things from the backstory I made up for Snape in Of A Sort and "Invisible"--the history of his mother, perhaps, who was a somewhat odd woman who had learned the Dark Arts as a child, or his demanding and exacting father who was staunchly on Dumbledore's side, but had all the restraint of Barty Crouch, Sr. Say I introduced the question of why a man like that was working for Dumbledore, and what it all meant and...

Well, those are all big questions, none of which had to do with the story I was telling, none of which are of interest to the characters I'm writing about, and, most important, none of which were going to be answered or even addressed in any way in the course of the story. And raising a dramatic question without the slightest intention of having it come into play is bad-faith writing--everything you write toward the beginning is an implicit promise to the reader that you're going to follow up on it, and failing to do so breaks faith.

In Characters and Viewpoint, O.S. Card talks about different "levels" of characters. You have your main characters, who are always fully characterized, and you have your supporting characters, who usually are and should be. But you also have cameos, bit parts, extras--all of these require ever smaller levels of characterization. In the case of Shifts, Remus, Sirius, Tonks, and (to some extent) Dudley are the major acting characters, so they get the whole shebang. Around them are people who have a direct impact on them: Ted and Andromeda, Peter, the OCs with whom Remus is working, Dumbledore. I did my best to give these guys reasonable lives and personalities, but not to give them really complex personal problems that would need to be resolved (okay, so I gave Ted and Andromeda a complex problem, so sue me--it was plot, though, not personal). Then there are people who don't interact with them much directly, but have an impact on the plot (Snape and Narcissa), or people who interact with them a lot but don't have that much impact on the plot (Mad-Eye, Kingsley, the Weasleys, a handful of other OCs... and, oh yeah, Harry). These are kind of background characters, and we see what Remus sees about them.

It wouldn't be appropriate to fully characterize the background folks, because they're, well... background. It's like web design--if you have an intricate, bright colored pattern, you can't read the text on top of it. You need to turn down the contrast to make it legible.

Does that make sense?

(I was amused that Snape was singled out for questioning on the characterization--he had more than people like, oh... Harry. Harry had zilch in terms of character development. Same for Hermione and Ron, and Bill Weasley, and Fleur Delacour.)

EDIT: Just to be clear, I'm not annoyed at my reviewer; it just got me started thinking about the subject.
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Comments
straussmonster From: straussmonster Date: April 4th, 2005 05:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was amused that Snape was singled out for questioning on the characterization

In this fandom, are you honestly surprised? :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2005 06:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh. I said "amused," not "surprised." :)
straussmonster From: straussmonster Date: April 4th, 2005 06:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
True enough; it is an eternally amusing component of the fandom...
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2005 05:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, well. Can't please everyone. But I'm not planning to change it at this juncture. San serif is easier for me to read than serif (less clutter), so san serif it remains. And dark on light--at least according to most sources, though I don't necessarily agree--is easier than light on dark.
awaywithpixie From: awaywithpixie Date: April 4th, 2005 06:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, the san serif is always best on screen. Monitors can't render serifs properly. Although the light text on a dark background is what I was taught is easiest on the eyes. There are so many different people telling you conflicting advice about that one, but definitely yellow writing on a black background is supposed to be easiest to read (apparently). Although if my uni lecturer says studies say that, then I'm supposed to believe him.

I think the last reviewer was saying that the lack of contrast between the light and dark grey is the problem. I'm inclined to agree. I did like the last style you had.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2005 06:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
PS: I do get the context point, but I've so far not been accused of making my main characters to "grayed out" to stand out, just of not developing the background ones.
sreya From: sreya Date: April 4th, 2005 07:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
There's another reason it doesn't make sense to develop characters like Snape and Harry in a fic like Of a Sort. You're writing a story that fleshes out the background characters of Order of the Phoenix, the ones who DIDN'T get major characterization and development in the original. So it doesn't make sense to also develop the characters that were developed in the original. Then the fic wouldn't be complementing, it would be re-writing.

And I do think Snape was developed quite a bit in OotP. For Snape. It's a little hard to keep his base character and learn a LOT about him.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: April 4th, 2005 07:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
This actually seems to be a huge fannish complaint about HP in general, not just your story - "Why isn't Character X fleshed out more? Character X is my favorite!" I'm hearing this on FA quite a bit - people fall in love with or become intrigued by a minor character (perfectly natural), hope that JKR expands more upon him or her in the next book (understandable) but become snitty or downright wanky when faced with the fact that JKR may, in fact, not develop the character further and/or flesh out every minor character she's introduced since PS/SS.

If JKR expanded on every character she wrote, the books would be the size and weight of baby elephants, and probably quite boring to read. As you said regarding Shifts, some background characters must remain just that - background characters. You're writing a story, not a documentary.

Want to expand upon minor characters? That's what fanfic is for. One of my motivations for writing fanfic is to flesh out minor characters - but I don't think that's necessarily JKR's job, or another writer's.
author_by_night From: author_by_night Date: April 4th, 2005 07:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
See, you were supposed to have this huge, revealing backstory on how he really became a Death Eater because his true love dumped him for a frog. ;)

Seriously, though - this fandom's gone over the top with that. Some people just *are* - no deep reasons, no fifty other layers. Do I think everyone has a good side? Yes. Do I think the author has to show it? Not really.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 5th, 2005 03:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
And is a good (or bad) side always deep? Even shallow traits are two-sided.
alkari From: alkari Date: April 4th, 2005 08:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
You should surely realise by now that the Snape fans are some of the most rabid around!!! I agree with the other comments: you don't need to flesh out characters who are minor or peripheral to your story. It is like a painting - you don't have everything in the picture given precisely the same perspective and emphasis. There are components or aspects of the story/picture that are always intended to be minor, and are not drawn with the same emphasis.

That doesn't mean that what you DO show cannot be a perfect miniature, with a minor character sketched in using just a few words here and there or a few brushstrokes.
forked From: forked Date: April 4th, 2005 10:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
I totally agree with you. Me personally, I read for Snape, so 'Shifts' hasn't been high on my reading list. BUT, that doesn't mean I think it would improve the story to focus on him more! If you spend lots of time on ALL of the characters, your story loses focus and starts to meander all over the place. It's not a good thing.

I've seen folks complain about canon Draco being 2 dimensional, and I agree. But I DON'T agree it's a problem! Draco plays a role in JKR's story, but it's not his story- it's Harry's. Trying to flesh out Draco would dilute the story JKR is trying to tell.

Now I have criticized stories for not including/fleshing out characters when I think that logically the character needs to be included in the story being told. I remember in particular a story set during the war, at Hogwarts, during the school year, that had Snape and Black getting together. Harry was nowhere in the story. I thought that was a problem- because I couldn't imaging Harry NOT being involved in that scenario, and at a minimum, I thought some logical reason for it needed to be presented. But in 'Shifts', it sounds like Snape is there when he needs to be. But if he's not the focus and not intrinsic to the plot, fleshing him out makes no sense and it would not make for a tight story.

Anyway- my take on it. If folks want to read 'Snape fic', they should probably read stories that ARE 'Snape fic'! Wedging him in where he doesn't belong doesn't make for good story telling.
From: arwencordelia Date: April 5th, 2005 12:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I need to confess straight off that I haven't read Shifts yet, so my comment may be somewhat irrelevant. Your reader's comment rang a bell, though, because I've seen it brought up before, especially in talking about Marauder fic. A common complaint in Marauder fic (and one I generally agree with) is that people ignore Peter completely, when we know from the books that all four of the boys were close friends in school. But when Peter *is* developed, I've heard about people receiving exactly the comment you did.

I readily admit to being a Snape fan, and yet this comparison doesn't make much sense to me because, well, Snape was very much *not* friends with the Marauders. In my mind, if JKR were writing MWPP's story, Snape would be about as fleshed-out as Draco is in the books she *did* write (unless JKR subscribes to the Snape-was-in-love-with-Lily theory, which I dearly hope she doesn't!)
From: arwencordelia Date: April 5th, 2005 12:10 am (UTC) (Link)
I should add that I do realise Shifts takes place in OOTP from your post (and not the MWPP era); and that's what makes the "equal time for Snape and Peter" opinion even stranger; Remus, as an adult, would have even less interaction with Snape then he did in school.
merrymelody From: merrymelody Date: April 5th, 2005 05:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
In my mind, if JKR were writing MWPP's story, Snape would be about as fleshed-out as Draco is in the books she *did* write.

That's pretty much the impression I get, too.
lavinialavender From: lavinialavender Date: April 5th, 2005 02:56 am (UTC) (Link)
Just a nod from another reader of Characters and Viewpoint. Remember when he talked about the anti-hero? I could not think of an example of what he was talking about until the last sentence - "An anti-hero is a hero who needs, metaphorically speaking, a bath." Then it instantly clicked - Oh, you mean Severus!
tiferet From: tiferet Date: April 5th, 2005 04:38 am (UTC) (Link)
This probably won't surprise you; I'm not a fan of Mr Card.

I understand that there are people who just walk on stage, do something and walk right back off, and I don't have a problem with that. I am amused by all the furore over Blaise Zabini (even though I developed him quite a bit in my own work) because I really think Rowling just needed a name that started with Z so that she could show the end of the Sorting.

The problem with 'one-dimensional' characters isn't that there are characters who serve a purpose (to get item A from point B to point C, for instance) and aren't developed. When people complain that an author's characterisations are 'one-dimensional' they usually mean one of two things:

1) The character reappears frequently--often enough that the fans feel the lack of development as a loss--and his behaviour is so utterly formulaic and/or nonsensical as not to seem fully human. (A lot of fans see Draco this way. I don't, but then Draco reminds me of me and I know why I did a lot of things I did as a teenager that at the time seemed rather bizarre even to me. I do, however, think that Voldemort approaches this extreme.) Recurring villains frequently do fall into this category and when they do, it's a serious problem, because unless you're watching Dudley Do-Right, you don't want to see Snidely Whiplash. There is an unfortunate delusion among writers that all you have to do is say of a villain, "he's crazy, he's batshit, he wants to control everything," and then show him raping someone, preferably a child or the hero, and that's all the character definition you need. (Thank you, Misty Lackwit. Not.) Most of these characters are Designated Bad Guys but you also have Designated Good Guys who are always loving and giving and kind whether or not it would be realistic.

2) The character reappears frequently and his behaviour doesn't seem to fit into any kind of recognisable pattern at all. S/he is completely random, and it is driving your readers CRAZY trying to figure out why his or her behaviour is random and inconsistent. At this point readers really want some character development so that they can understand the character and not just have to think, "Well I guess X is psychotic." If none appears, they will provide it themselves in fic.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 5th, 2005 04:43 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, obviously, if a character is appearing a lot and has some obvious point in the story, s/he would fall into the upper level of character, and needs development.

When it comes to the bad guys, though, there's another good reason to keep them flat--all that explaining why they do evil takes a whole lot of time and is bound to raise interest in them, when that's not where you want the reader's attention. In something like HP, the bad guys serve as a force of nature against which the heroes are tested.

(And in this particular case, while it's true that I immensely dislike Snape, that didn't cause me to ignore him; it caused me to write a story in which he doesn't do very much and is in the "lower levels" of characterization. I've been in his brain and done my time there; I'd like to get out now, please. ;))
tiferet From: tiferet Date: April 5th, 2005 05:12 am (UTC) (Link)
That's not in my opinion a good reason at all to keep the bad guys 'flat'. (Please note, I haven't read your story; I'm speaking in general terms.)

Personally I am so sick of Jo Rowling bitching that people like the wrong characters. Has keeping her bad guys 'flat' done anything BUT raise interest in them? If you have people acting in ways that don't make a whole lot of sense, yet tell readers that they're powerful...you're absolutely going to engage the reader's imagination unless they're the sort of person that blindly accepts whatever they're told.

If you want your bad guys to be a force of nature without reason, write stories about tsunamis and earthquakes. Otherwise, when you show people raping babies and eating women (mind you, this is more of a Lackwit problem or an Anne Bishop problem than a Rowling problem) the reader may very well be unable to believe that this could really happen.

If Snape's not a major part of your story, there's no need to get into his head, but Snape actually is a fairly well-developed character in canon anyway--which means, of course, that various factions of the fandom have their own interpretations of the character and if you don't provide your own, they'll just use the ones they brought with 'em.
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disturbed_kiwi From: disturbed_kiwi Date: April 5th, 2005 10:55 am (UTC) (Link)
Just sterted reading Shifts (I think...) and quickly found this:
"Maybe it was just because he was expected to ignore it when teh boys hit one another with sticks (though that was the de facto policy at Hogwarts when students threw spells at one another)."

teh boys?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 5th, 2005 12:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Just sterted? ;)

The link on the right is to an only slightly cleaned up version (Britpicks semi-taken care of, etc). The final version is at the Quill, and I did catched the "teh." ;)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 5th, 2005 12:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I'm doing well. "Did catched"?

:facepalm:
gia_b From: gia_b Date: April 5th, 2005 11:29 am (UTC) (Link)

From the Daily Snitch

Which is why there are your fleshed out A-class Generics, then your secondary character material B-class Generics, and so on.

...this was random. But Jasper Fforde is a genius.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 5th, 2005 12:53 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: From the Daily Snitch

Love to JF.
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