All-or-Nothing, black-or-white thinking is a very limited way to evaluate the world, other people and oneself. It’s an unrealistic and unforgiving attitude, and despite its clear-cut and unpretentious nature, it is a rather inadvisable personality type for a fictional character. After all, doesn’t the charm of fiction lie in the exploration of the many shades of gray out there? Why would you voluntarily doom one of your characters to a two-dimensional existence? Unless, of course, you need a black-or-white character to round up your cast. If that’s the case, there are a few basic things you need to consider to flesh this character out and make him worthy of your story.
The core reasoning of the All-or-Nothing personality type is as follows:
– people are either good (always honest, friendly, useful to me or my goal) or bad (inherently deceitful, evil, detrimental to me or my goal);
– actions are either equitable or condemnable, they’re either profitable or pointless;
– my own values and beliefs are absolute;
– when I reach my goal it must be exactly how I imagined it (or more), anything else means that I have failed;
Here are th pitfalls of having a black-or-white character in your story:
– the tendency to become rigid and two-dimensional is very strong; be careful to include other facets of this character’s life and personality, or you run the risk to end up with a stick-man;
– he can be very determined and makes for a great proactive character that moves the plot forward, but watch out for your twists—he doesn’t do well with changing his mind and won’t be easily persuaded to go against his value system;
– he is very dependable, and once other characters understand his beliefs they can always count on his reactions, but make sure he doesn’t become too predictable, and always deliver something additional to his expected actions, or you risk the reader feeling your character is a personified deus ex machina to push the plot;
This type of character can make a lasting impression if done well. If you’re writing a series, he can even be the thread that binds them and offers stability. This porsonality type makes for a rounded “flat character”, a minor or secondary character that doesn’t undergo substatial change throughout the story.
I know you’re ambitious. So what can you do to take even this “flat”, seemingly simple-minded character to the next level? Here are a few suggestions:
If he’s a good guy — put him in the position of having to choose between sticking to his principles and values but bringing harm to a friend (possibly your protagonist) in doing so, and being loyal to his friend but having to break a promise to himself by doing that (which will cause inner turmoil, but subsequently create a very strong tie to his friend out of his need for continuity upon a shift in values); readers will remember him for this tough decision either way;
If he’s a neutral guy — put him in the unwanted, possibly accidental position of power over the course of the plot, and force him to take sides; his 15 minutes of fame will have a lasting effect on the entire story, and you will also rip this character out of his neutrality, something which is bound to make an impression on the reader if done well;
If he’s a bad guy, and if the intricacies of your cast and plot allow it — have him follow a course of action that is perfectly plausible according to his “evil” intentions and values, but ends up creating a much needed leverage for your protagonist at the right moment, shifting things in the protagonist’s favor when everything looks bleak; then have your bad guy bang his head against a wall in trying to figure out if his evil deed with a good outcome is contradicting his black-or-white mindset or not. This offers a nice, bitter-sweet moment of irony and is sure to be remembered.
While All-or-Nothing-ism is a detrimental attitude to have for yourself, especially in self-evaluation, understanding it and thus knowing how to portray it can become a powerful tool in your writer’s kit. The abundance of cognitive distortions out there, of personality disorders and character flaws, of twisted thinking patterns and contradictions, is an inexhaustible well of inspiration for character development. If you take the time to study them alongside with the technicalities of craft, you’ll never have to worry about running out of ideas or writing cardboard characters ever again.
I’m sure you already came up with a few good examples of your own for our All-or-Nothing guy. Name a few, and share your suggestions of improvement to my tips. How can you implement these characteristics into your story to make it better?