“Meanwhile we shall express our darker purpose.” William Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.1.36
The late, great Ross MacDonald seemed to have some concerns that his labyrinthine plots and engaging metaphors overshadowed the character development of his series hero, Lew Archer. “When he turns sideways,” MacDonald once said, “you can barely see him.” I was a big fan of MacDonald’s work, but in some ways I have to agree with his assessment.
I had occasion to compare the movie versions of his novels (Harper and The Drowning Pool) with the novels a while back for a class I was teaching. Both movies featured Paul Newman as the redoubtable detective.
In The Moving Target, the first Archer book, the protagonist, Lew Archer, alludes to his impending divorce with a sense of sadness, but the subject is pretty much glossed over. As far as characterization, it’s almost like part of the wallpaper. Screenwriter William Goldman, a big MacDonald fan, had the good sense to use the divorce to develop the character in the movie version, Harper. (Newman insisted the name be changed from Archer to Harper due to his affinity for the letter H, and after successes like Hud and The Hustler, who could blame him?) The movie opens as Harper wakes up in his office, soaks his head in ice, forgoes a clean shave and slips into the same shirt he’d worn the day before. He also finds out he’s out of coffee and is forced to fish the old grounds out of the garbage to brew himself a wake-up cup. How’s that for character development? (Aside: if you want a real in-depth treat into the process of a really good writer, pick up the DVD of the movie and watch it while listening to Goldman’s commentary.)
But on to our primary topic.
How important is character depth? Certainly, creating characters that are realistic and complex is an important technique that a writer should cultivate. Cardboard characters are the things of cliché and melodrama. Those of you old enough to remember the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show might recall the sinister agent, Boris Badenov (think: “bad enough”), and his female counterpart, the fetching Natasha Fatale. They were so mean and so cartoonish that even when they had live actors play them in the movie version, they seemed to be made of pure cardboard. We love to laugh at them, because they’re so one dimensional, but like their cartoon counterparts in most animated features, there is little emotional investment. When Yosemite Sam finds himself standing on thin air and about to fall hundreds of feet down the cliff while facing his perennial adversary, Bugs Bunny, the audience laughs as Sam mutters, “I hates you,’ and then drops. While there is nothing intrinsically funny about a man falling over the edge of a cliff, we don’t regard Sam as a “real” person, so it’s okay to find amusement in his misfortune. We don’t, for a moment, believe that any real harm will come to him.
So this might be a key point in our quest to create characters with depth. As writers, we should try to make our characters realistic. This is done by giving our heroes some faults, and our villains some redeeming qualities. The guy might be a killer, but he is kind to his mother and has a dog to which he is fiercely loyal. (Just make sure the dog is provided for after the villain is dispatched.) Most of us can relate to qualities like that, and remember, the villain is the hero of his own story. We can also relate to needing that morning cup of coffee so badly that fishing the old grounds out of the garbage might be an action of necessity. (Remember the aforementioned movie was made before there was a Starbucks on every corner.)
The word depth suggests both substance and complexity. The Chinese symbol of art and philosophy, the yin-yang, sums this concept up with perfect simplicity. A symbol for the duality of life, the circle is evenly divided into two halves, one white, one black, and in each of those sections a small circle of the opposite color decorates each of the colored halves. In everything black, there is a bit of white, and vice versa. Nothing is totally one dimensional. Writers take note and fashion your characters thusly.
Getting back to Ross MacDonald, he named his character Lew Archer in homage to Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, in The Maltese Falcon. There’s no shortage of complex characters in that one, and perhaps MacDonald sought to emulate Hammett’s masterful creations. In fairness, I want to add that MacDonald’s Archer novels always contained complex and interesting secondary characters. His Lew Archer was more of an observer of the other characters' psychological traits. Ironically, I found MacDonald’s non-Archer novels a bit richer in protagonist development than the Archer books, for which he received his greatest praise. (Try reading Trouble Follow Me, Blue City, or The Dark Tunnel if you want a thrill-a-minute reading experience with engaging protagonists.) The key is to create interesting characters that catch the interest of the reader.
Well, it seems, as Edmund said in King Lear, “The wheel is come full circle.” So it’s time to cut this one off. Just remember that old yin/yang symbol and strive for harmony in all things, especially in creating characters with depth.