P.M. Prescott’s comment on this post reminded me about the concept of “fractal” structure for a piece of literature. I was about to write a post about it, but then I remembered–as with the vampires a few weeks ago–that I’d already done so, two years ago, almost to the day.
He’s right that there’s a limit to how much complexity you can give a character before people will get bored of hearing about it. That’s why the best character development is done through “showing, not telling”, as the old adage says, and having their complexity displayed through the plot-driving actions they take. And maybe best of all is having characters who are ambiguous–that way, the audience will start to make up their own explanations for their motivations–provided you give them enough material to work with.
It’s also true that you don’t need complex characters to have a good story. The characters in Animal Farm, for example, are largely just allegorical caricatures of political figures and parties from the first half of the 20th century. But it’s still a great book.
I guess the real key, whether your characters are nuanced and complex, or simply cut-outs who represent something else, is to make sure it all works together as part of the story you are telling. The characters and incidents need to somehow reflect or represent the larger story.
For example, one of the major of themes of the book Of Mice and Men is loneliness. To quote the Wikipedia article:
Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley’s wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for —- she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch… The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”
Each of the characters and their major issues are somehow related to that theme. That’s what makes it a theme.
Another example of what I’m talking about–not so much with characters, but rather concerning the idea that the individual pieces reflect the whole, is in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Many of them start out with Holmes and Watson talking about some minor curiosity. Holmes then explains it to Watson by using his deductive powers, and shows how he was able to figure out what Watson (and everyone else) would miss.
Then the actual plot of the story, the central mystery, is introduced. It will be resolved in exactly the same way; with Holmes making deductions to solve the case. This is called “foreshadowing”, but it’s just a matter of the micro-elements of the story resembling the macro-elements.
Needless to say, as P.M. noted, this is all really, really hard to write.