I like villains.
Everyone who knows me just let out a collective, and sarcastic, ‘nooooo’.
Let me explain. I like complex characters. I like characters with layers. Characters who, if you get to know them, would be nice/interesting/kind people, if it weren’t for that homicidal streak/drug problem/superiority complex/emotional distance.
You hear it all the time, so-and-so is a one-dimensional character; or, so-and-so is a Mary Sue/Gary Stue.
To clarify: one-dimensional characters are exactly what they look like and nothing more. Horror movies (mainly from the 1970’s through mid-1990’s) are loaded with one-dimensional characters: the jock, the nerd, the cool kid/popular one/rich one, the criminal, the emo/goth/psycho one, the airhead, the innocent one/virgin. A Mary Sue (for a female character)/Gary Stue (for a male character) is someone who’s just great. They’re smart, good looking, kind, athletic, in short, they’re good at everything including being a human being.
Here are the problems with one-dimensional characters. One, they’re unrelatable. I’m sure there are those of you out there who know a jock. You might be thinking: Why wouldn’t the jock I know relate to the jock character? Well, and here’s the second reason one-dimensional characters are bad, because people, real people, are more than one thing. That jock you know could also be a father, a loving husband, a klutz, have a great sense of humor, they could write poetry. That air-head could be a great and selfless friend, a good cook, have a wonderful singing voice. The third problem with one-dimensional characters is that by boiling characters/people down to one thing you make your audience care about them less. Why should I care if the jock dies in a horror movie? But if Billy, the boy dedicated to his girlfriend, who lives with his grandmother, who happens to be on the football team dies I would care more. For instance, who’s going to tell his grandmother, and who’s going to take care of her now?
Mary Sues and Gary Stues have the same problems, but for the opposite reason. Mary and Gary are just too much of everything. They’re unrelatable because no one can be that many things. When was the last time you met someone who was good at everything? And a great person? They’re unrelatable because your readers can’t see themselves rising to the occasion and stepping into their shoes. It’s also hard to care about these characters because it’s hard to put them in danger. That locked door? I’ll pick the lock. That file we need from the computer? I hacked it. The killer is almost on us. Them? I doubled back and tricked/trapped them, we’re good now. There’s no rising action and climax, for the audience, because they know that Mary/Gary will definitely get out of it. This also renders the other characters in the story obsolete, giving them the role baggage or witnesses, just there to slow down Mary/Gary or to see how great they are.
The thing to do then is give your characters depth. Sometimes this means giving them a flaw or two. Sometimes this means letting your audience get to know them. Sprinkle in information about them and their lives outside of the story in the story. Mostly this means giving them more personality.
A couple movies you could watch that take the ideas of stereotypical roles (the jock, the criminal, the nerd, the emo/goth/psycho chick, the airhead, the innocent) and turn them on their heads are The Breakfast Club and The Faculty. In one the stereotypes are thrown together in a detention scenario and throughout the day we learn more about them, giving them depth. In the other the horrific crisis that the group goes through forces them to change and adapt. Plus, both are fun movies.
Another thing you can do is people watch. When you see someone assign them the one-dimension (jock, nerd, airhead, etc.), and try to identify what about them made you pick that. Then give them a backstory. Give them depth. Why do they look sad? Did their favorite team just lose, or did they just go through a breakup? Of all the sports, why are they into water polo? Were they the star of their high school water polo team, or was their father/mother a famous water polo player and that’s how they feel close to them? Of all the teams, why are they into that one? Is it the hometown team, or is that the team their grandfather worked for as a groundskeeper for their entire life?
Put simply, the way to stop writing one-dimensional characters is, instead of asking ‘What are they?’ you ask ‘Who are they?’.
Remember: write yourself, write well; be yourself, be well.