That’s Just Typical

Someone recently made the statement that if a female character was created for the purpose of being a male character’s love interest, they were, by default, two-dimensional.

Now, on the surface, this may sound like a legitimate strike against sexism and/or shallowness in general. But let’s substitute a few ideas, and see if the concept holds up. What if we said, for instance, that:

Any female character created for the purpose of being a male character’s mother is two-dimensional.

Any female character created for the purpose of being a male character’s mentor is two-dimensional.

Any male character created for the purpose of being another male character’s rival in love is two-dimensional.

What’s being said here is that any character created for the purpose of being a device for another character’s plot arc is two-dimensional. The original sentiment may think it’s feminist, but if (if) it’s being fair and including the equivalents listed above, it’s actually anti-archetypal.

This position says that living, breathing, three-dimensional characters don’t come as the fulfillment of an author’s plot-related needs or desires. They come as people, and they move the plot by their own motivations and actions.

There’s something to be said for that; there really is. Ever the Actor began with a person—with a sparkle of eyes, a full sense of personhood, and a whisper in the dark that said, “Tell my story; I promise you’ll love it.” But it couldn’t end there.

There had to be other people in his story, and not all of them sprang up and seized my mind as he did.

Some of them (in fact, most of them,) I brought in to serve a purpose. *Le gasp*

That’s right. I needed an inciting incident, so I gave him a distant nemesis in the form of a king with some interesting ideas about tax reform.
I needed a captain to take him aboard a ship, and then make some particular (and peculiar) decisions thereafter, so I made one.
I needed a prophet to foretell of his coming, so I made one.
I needed someone scary to pose a threat to his companion, so I made one.

And if that’s where I’d stopped, I’d have been very wrong indeed. But I didn’t.

Next, I looked for a person.

They had a job to do, sure, but I still wanted a person. So I looked at the resume—a king, you say? Good, that’s just what we’re looking for,—but once I had the qualified character in my office, I started asking more questions.

“So, how do you feel about your rule? Any powers-behind-the-throne I should know about? Family life? Motivations? Oh, you want to conquer the Kapatak Union? Good to know, let me note that down. That will certainly change some things…”

It turned out the captain was down on his luck, desperate, with the strong affections of his crew, but a mind on the verge of cracking under the fear of losing what he loved most—ship and sea.

The prophet was a four-year-old child, blasé and powerful, disturbingly cheerful, and in possession of an ability shared by no one else on her planet.

Further inspection found that the “someone scary” wasn’t just a giant angry blacksmith, he was a giant angry blacksmith who smuggled supplies to his oppressed homeland in support of an uprising that, together with my king’s ambitions, form the political backbone of my sequel.

And yes, as it happens, I did think Syawn should have a girlfriend, and created a character purely to fill that role, and to make sense within the scheme of his life. And closer examination proved that she was just the sort of woman who would—ah, but that’s a spoiler.

My point? You can start with a person, sure, and go from there. If you don’t have a plot, finding a person and their motivations is a good place to start.

But it’s just as legitimate to start with a need, and create a figure to fill it. Yes: even if that “need” is for a love interest, any gender.

Just—so long as you find out who they are.

Take them out for coffee, sit down, and find out that there’s more to them than what they have to offer you, your plot, your other character. See, really see, the face behind the archetype.

And always leave them room to surprise you.

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4 comments

  1. Great thoughts! It definitely can be problematic having those characters simply in the story to fill a purpose, but with proper work they can have some sense of distinction.

  2. Those in my head and I chorus, “AMEN!” A necessary role in need of fulfillment is a sorry end, but can indeed make for as fine a starting point as any a muse ever gave. (:

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