I am just starting Elantris, which is Brandon Sanderson’s first published novel. I’m not ready to call his characters two-dimensional, but let’s say they are simple. This is a subject that concerns me, because it I find it to be one of the major factors in making or breaking the quality a novel. I have stopped reading David Weber’s Honor Harrington series for this reason. Perhaps more importantly, I want to be able to avoid this problem in my own writing. Which means I need to figure out what it is that I don’t like about these characters.
Chapter 3 of Elantris introduces a new character in the first paragraph. After one paragraph, I already don’t like him. How can I find a character to be lacking in realism in just one paragraph? It’s not absence of realism, which could come later in the story. It’s because Sanderson has offered us an unrealistic character. A caricature.
None of Arelon’s people greeted their savior when he arrived. It was an affront, of course, but not an unexpected one. The people of Arelon — especially those living near the infamous city of Elantris — were known for their godless, even heretical ways. Hrathen had come to change that. He had three months to convert the entire kingdom of Arelon; otherwise Holy Haddeth — lord of all creation — would destroy it. The time had finally come for Arelon to accept the truths of the Derethi religion.
WTF? Alright, so perhaps the author is trying to make the point that religious people are illogical. We’re supposed to believe that there is a character who intends to convert an entire kingdom to some other religion? That he is confident he will succeed? No. That’s just not realistic. Even if we accept he is following the orders of his higher power, real people are filled with doubt and anxiety, especially when tasked with the impossible.
We’ve already been introduced to Raoden, who is a prince but is otherwise bland and completely mediocre. We are presumably supposed to believe that this completely average person is going to solve the mystery of his curse, and we are additionally supposed to believe that he will succeed where others have failed because no one else actually seriously looked for the answers. (I’m assuming here, because I haven’t read that far.) We’ve met Sarene, a smart and confident princess (?) who has just come to a new land and discovered she is locked into a marriage contract with a dead guy and must never leave this new place. We’re supposed to believe she is going to accept this turn of events in stride and with a calm, optimistic attitude. (Aw, shucks. My life is ruined. Oh well. It’s for the good of the kingdom.) We’ve met King Iadon, who despite being on shaky ground politically, is simply an insensitive jerk for no reason. And we’ve met Ashe, who is just a hovering, glowing, disembodied intelligence.
What’s wrong with these characters isn’t that we don’t know what makes them tick. It’s that we already know a little about their motivations, and they are acting contrary to those motivations. If we were in these situations, we wouldn’t act this way. No one we know would act this way in these situations. No one we’ve ever heard of would. So they are weird and unrealistic, and there’s been no acknowledgement within the book that they are weird and unrealistic and perhaps an explanation or a mystery will be forthcoming. Ashe doesn’t acknowledge that Sarene is taking this strangely. Sarene isn’t surprised that a ruler, who necessarily depends on others for his power, is an unthinking asshole. Sarene isn’t blown away emotionally by the situation she has found herself in. Hrathen has no reasonable doubts that maybe his mission will not go well. That’s what those characters should do and feel in their situations, but they don’t.
So it’s not really that these characters are simple, or two-dimensional, or distilled examples of some stereotype. They simply aren’t behaving or thinking true to their own character.
Instead of putting a character into a situation and letting the character drive the story, the author has already plotted the story, and now he is forcing the characters to move through the plot points, oblivious to whether those actions are natural for those characters.
I don’t think I have completely solved the overall question. For example, this is not really the same as David Weber’s problem. He really does write characters who are stereotypes. Dean Koontz justifies the nature of his characters, except that there are way too damn conveniently many of them (extreme good guys and extreme bad guys), and they defy the bell curve (in other words, he needs more normal people in his stories). Robert Heinlein writes characters who are unrealistically rational because he wants to live in a world of rational people.
I need to keep thinking about this.
Update: I finished Elantris, which turned out to be pretty good. The three characters mentioned above all became more believable. In the end, they were not unrealistic characters, not two-dimensional, and not stereotypes. However, they were definitely introduced that way. I suppose Sanderson was trying to grab the reader, introducing the conflict and each character’s story goal right away. For me, that backfired, and it illustrates the benefit of introducing or developing a character before before upsetting their world. I believe Elantris is Sanderson’s first published novel, and I haven’t noticed this problem in anything else he has written. Indeed, he has been developing characters much more slowly in his more recent work, often to the point of making them a mystery.
Nevertheless, I am going to watch for this as I read other things. I have often wondered what makes a character feel two-dimensional, and this may still be the answer.