Characters are like onions

December 29, 2009 at 5:33 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , )

You’ve probably all seen the original Shrek movie where Mike Myers as the title character explains the ogres are like onions, they have layers.  Personally I would have gone with the Donkey in that cakes and parfait both have layers too and they don’t smell half as bad but Shrek was determined to stick to his onion story and not be derailed.

Whatever image you like, the point remains.  Ogres have layers and yet Shrek is probably the least complex character in the story.  Ugly, smelly and bad tempered on the outside and vulnerable and bitter on the inside, with the tiniest centre of sweetness and love that reveals itself just enough that he doesn’t alienate himself from everybody in the story.

All characters (or at least all of the well constructed characters) have layers.  They come with pasts and complexes and unresolved issues and passions and friends and families and they have desires and weird motivations that on some level have to make sense.

Still on Shrek, I just want to quickly look a Lord Farquaad.  People tend to forget about our miniscule tyrant when talking about Shrek.  They mention the dragon, they mention Donkey, they mention Fiona, Gingy, Puss in Boots who wasn’t even in the first movie.  Lord Farquaad is disappeared from people’s minds.  Yet he was my favourite character from Shrek because even though his screen time was limited, as was his height, he made quite an  impression.  Why?  Because he is motivated and driven.  Every other character in the story reacts to events around them while Lord Farquaad takes control of things every step of the way and seeks to use events to his best advantage.  Lord Farquaad isn’t just the villain of the story he is the centre piece that the story revolves around.

Now Shrek himself points out Farquaad’s main problem and that is he is overly short and feels the need to overcompensate but that doesn’t begin to give enough reason for Farquaad’s actions.  Certainly it gives a reason for him to want power.  But he is already in control of the kingdom.  He is in charge.  Why does he care so much about being an actual King?  More importantly, why does he deal with Shrek rather than sending one of his knights after Fiona as he was going to?  Why does he think fairy tale creatures are destroying his perfect kingdom?  Not one of these questions can be answered by saying he is short and power hungry.  Farquaad has more depth than is at first apparent.  It would have been really interesting to find out something about Farquaad’s past.  How he came to be in charge in the first place and what has driven him to the point where we first meet him in Shrek as the gingerbread torturer.

I would love to hear your thoughts:

Who are some of your favourite characters and why?

Writers, how do you create layers for your characters?



  1. Fiona Skye said,

    I always appreciate a well-written, thoughtfully composed villain the best. I like ones with deep-seated psychological problems, foibles, neuroses, weaknesses. I think it’s because I really enjoy figuring people out and seeing what makes them tick, why they are the way they are. Hannibal Lecter is the best example I can think of right now. I do not like villains who are evil just because they can be. That’s boring to me. I much prefer someone who’s evil because his mother didn’t love him enough or because he witnessed his childhood pet being run over. Even if they are completely without any hope of redemption, as long as they aren’t bad for badness’ sake, I enjoy them.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I really dislike villains who are evil because they can be. It doesn’t make any sense. Much like villains who will ‘destroy the world’. Seriously, what are they going to do after they finish destroying the planet they are standing on. Hannibal Lecter is an interesting villain but there are so many really brilliant villainous characters out there.
      Thanks for visiting and the comment.

  2. catwoods said,


    Thanks for the thought provoking post. I enjoyed waking up this morning and having to use my brain!

    Hannibal Lector is a great example of a villian you love to hate and almost hate to hate, because you can see that little slice of humanity somewhere in him.

    In general, I love characters with psychological issues. I think we all have them on many levels and that emotional growth is one of the best ways to create layers. For example in one of my middle grade novels, my bully is huge. It turns out that he bullies in a proactive kind of self defense because he had a pituitary tumor that made him grow faster than usual and the medication he takes now makes him wet the bed. He’s motivated to hide his problems and driven to make everyone else feel as miserable as he is. Even if it’s subconscious.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I also kind of like protagonist with psychological issues, they may not be as much fun as some of the villains but they can certainly get interesting.
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Carol Kilgore said,

    I’ve written villans who are psychotic, and they’re fun to write for me because almost nothing is too over the top. But the last villan I wrote was a crime boss. Someone had caused his father to be sent to prison, and he lusted for revenge. This was man hell-bent on killing everyone involved. He also doted on his daughter and was madly in love with his wife.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Sounds like your crime boss had some issues to work through – though he was probably great fun to write.

  4. unabridgedgirl said,

    Fun post! I love thinking about characters, though I haven’t taken time out for Shrek. Some of my favorites, though, include (but are not limited to): Mr. Dark and Mr. Halloway from, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, Tess from Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, Greit from, Girl With the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, and The Ring in Lord of the Rings.

  5. The Gourmez said,

    Very interesting read and comments, too. I like the idea that an interesting character is one who acts, not just reacts. Might have to think about my fantasy novel to see if I’ve got enough action going on . . .

    Also, though, I do think bad merely because someone is bad can be very interesting — if there is no explanation for why someone in a regular, functional life begins a crime spree, it begs questions about the nature of the soul, always a wealth of discussion for me.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      True, in life sometimes you don’t get answers. However I like fiction because things make an underlying kind of sense in books and movies. Those that don’t, don’t really interest me.

  6. unabridgedgirl said,

    Oh yeah! The Ring is a character for sure. We had a huge discussion about it in a lit class, and I ended up writing a paper on the subject. Fun stuff.

  7. dystophil said,

    Hm, most of my favorite villains are definitely the psychotic ones. But then again the same counts for heroes. There just aren’t any one-dimensional characters, you always have backgrounds and motivations to create a complex character as well as plot, because honestly what is plot other than the unfolding complexities of a character?

    As a writer I always love it when I get to discover a characters covert layers, the things that may not be apparent when we first encounter them. One of my favorite villains in my current novel for example is completely psychotic with the occasional sadistic streak, but he also has a hidden thirst for revenge as he works for the empire that has destroyed his life. Or, your standard Evil Empire turns out to actually work with good intentions, but merely employs means of questionable morality.

    Personally I stay away from flat characters and nothing irritates me more than stereotypes in literature. Recently I’ve read a quote stating “There are no good or bad guys, there are only better and worse ones” and I tend to agree with that, but would also add that there is no good nor evil, but merely shades of gray.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I think that is true of most of my stories – no good guys, just slightly better ones.
      Thanks for the comment.

  8. donthangupthequill said,

    I recently compared my writing to a Snickers bar! How funny.

    Snickers taste much better than onions. *grin*

  9. Tyrion Frost said,

    Great post, and I thank you for it.

    Characters for me are incredibly important. If I’m reading something, and I don’t connect with the characters on some level..I don’t care. The language and wording can be brilliant, but if they don’t strike SOMETHING in me…then my interest goes out the window..

    And I don’t mean that I have to like them, in fact, some of the most interesting characters are quite un-likable..but it’s the layers that makes them least for me. This post definitely got me thinking =].

    I know with the fantasy genre (which is my favorite), there is a lot of good vs evil — the typical bad guy..the typical hero — some of it is readable, but a lot just turns me off. The real enjoyable fantasy for me, is the kind where the characters actually have motive — reasoning for their actions. Not just fictional characters conjured up by the writer to fill specific/generic roles.

    ..I personally love the “Song of Ice & Fire” saga by George R.R. Martin. Not sure if you’re familiar with it, but it’s written in a multiple point of view fashion .. and it REALLY works here. Martin writes the characters with such depth..and because of the specific point of view really get to see what makes each character tick; what motivates and drives them. That way, some of the good guys end up seeming not so good..and some of the bad guys become understandable. You might still have issues with them..but the line between good vs evil becomes quite blurred. That’s when things get interesting.

    So yeah, I think I wrote too much (I tend to do that). Personally..a few of my favorite characters are Tyrion Lannister from “A Song of Fire & Ice”..Saro (a mute girl with a very strange past) from “The Book of Atrix Wolfe” by Patricia McKillip, and The Fool from “The Farseer Trilogy” by Robin Hobb. All interesting characters with multiple layers.

    As for my writing..I tend to write a lot of psychological horror. I find the human mind to be quite fascinating, and scary all the same. But yeah..layers are good. Lol.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Have to agree that there has to be some connection to the character for the story to work. I have to care what happens to them – I don’t need to necessarily like them. Motive is has to be there and it has to make some kind of sense. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Margot Kinberg said,

    Cassandra – You bring up such an interesting point about characters having layers. I’ve seen Shrek, but I hadn’ thought about Farquaad in that way before. I think lots of characters have more layers than we think they do. I often find as I write that my characters develop layers over time. That is, when I first start writing them, they’re not nearly as deep and layered as they are as I get into the story. Thanks for forcusing me on that…

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I think we do get to know our characters more as we get further along in writing and sometimes they surprise us by being even more deep than we realised. Thanks for the comment.

  11. Melonie said,

    I never thought of Lord Farquaad in that way before, and you’re spot on. He truly is the take-control, event driving character in the original Shrek, and he’s perfect at that.

    My favorite high literary villain is Fyodor Karamazov, for a lot of the same reasons you have identified with Farquaad, if you can imagine that! He is an utterly selfish man who manipulates everyone over whom he has the slightest influence. He capitalizes on each situation in order to gain to upper hand. The lives he touches are left in the ruins of tragedy. But unlike Farquaad, there is an ongoing hope in the heart that his humanity will emerge (and slowly, it does — but not to the redeeming degree to which such hope aspires…) The result is the fractured glass in whose jagged shards we are left to observe the scars left upon his sons, too numerous and deep to be healed even in the THAT many pages.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      The take control characters are more interesting because the motive is more interesting. That was the one problem with Farquaad, you never could believe that he might consider a change of heart. Thanks for the comment.

  12. Lovely Lace said,

    I love the “devil” character in some of Stephen King’s novels. Like Randall Flagg from “The Stand.” He is always a cool dude or a charming character who gives people what they want in exchange for loyalty. His background is vague, but it encompasses all that is bad in the world: war, murder, and greed.

    I always start out with looks for my character. The way I picture them in my head determines their racial background, their age, and what kind of person they are. I go from there and try to make up a little background for them. Sometimes stuff just pops up as I go along–things I didn’t even have in mind for them in the first place!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Appearance is definitely a layer of the character that needs to be right because people do make assumptions about who someone is from the way they look. Thanks for the comment.

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