A friend and I were discussing characterisation over some excellent dim sum last night, and we came up with an interesting theory. To make a character truly nuanced, you have to work out the things they know about themselves and then the things they don’t know. The known knowns and the known unknowns, to quote Donald Rumsfeld.
This grew out of a conversation about character flaws. Getting flaws right is a delicate balance: too few and you’re risking a Mary Sue, too many and the character becomes unlikeable or even unworkable. So how do you achieve that balance? I used a specific character as an example – one that has the massive flaw of arrogance but is completely unaware of it. It colours all interaction with others, who of course are very aware, and will hopefully lead to an interesting character development as she recognises it and tries to overcome it.
Which brings me on to the question of conflict in plot arcs. All stories must have some kind of conflict, otherwise where’s the tension? Where’s the suspense? Where’s the story? Conflict can be boiled down, at its most generalised, into three types:
1. Man vs self – this is probably the hardest to write, but every story really needs at least a trace of it. It is the internal character development or redemption. To do it subtly is tough. To do it grandly (i.e. that is all the story) is even tougher, because you risk limiting your supporting cast and your main character must be likeable both before and after in order to keep the reader interested.
2. Man vs man – this covers any interpersonal conflict, be it human, alien or divine. It’s the most common type, which brings its own challenge of originality. You also have to keep an eye out for ‘evil overlord’ syndrome – remember that both sides of the conflict have to have depth and internal consistency of some kind.
3. Man vs nature – often a survival or natural disaster story. The Day After Tomorrow sticks in my head as an example (mainly because it was so terrible). Again, this carries its own warning label – if your protagonist is in conflict against a natural disaster, how on earth can they win? You run the severe risk of them feeling / looking helpless, and a happy ending is that much tougher to achieve.
Carrying on with the idea of internal conflict and character flaws brings me to Carl Jung’s shadow theory:
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.
So to give a character real depth, work out their shadow. That ought to give you internal conflict and interpersonal conflict at the same time, as well as some kind of story arc. If you’re going for the hat trick of all three, of course, you could make your character someone like Loki and bring in natural disaster as well!