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Creating Complex Characters

Article length: 3600 words (preview 1000/wds)

The most forgettable people you meet in the real world are people without any real prominent character.

Usually quieter folks, with nothing physically remarkable about them or their manner. (The senses open the door, substance gets you to enter and stick around.)

Folks who have no outward expression of passion. Folks who simply go along with the crowd and thus blend in with the crowd.

I spent a lot of time in my life going to parties, art openings, and other social gatherings where I had totally nothing in common with the folks at these events… folks all from the same clique. Jocks at the sports bar, trust fund kids at the wall street house parties, wana be culture snobs at the art openings… scores of people all cut from the same mold.

While these people in the real world most certainly had at least some level of complexity to them, in a brief passing at a party, such complexity is rarely revealed.

This is how much of  Fiction works.

Many characters never get the page time to reveal any real complexity.

These one dimensional characters find their effectiveness in exaggerated characterization, schticks, their context in the narrative (action guys fighting, detectives detecting, etc.), or otherwise rely on a trope to fill a narratively fast and superficial role.

Sometimes, one dimensional characters even get a pass as the protagonist!

But when you need to write an important character like the protagonist, with particular depth and complexity, how exactly do you do it?

If your mind immediately jumps to the Character Arc, good for you. I like the way you’re thinking, bub.

The Character Arc certainly adds depth and color to a character. It’s a topic I’ve touched on many times in length elsewhere… but here’s the thing, character arc’s don’t create complexity by themselves. Character arcs create engagement and most importantly, carry the purpose of the narrative through realization of the Master Theme.

Fundamentally, Character Arcs push characters toward complexity.

They get them out of the realm of being one dimensional, moving toward well-rounded and multi-faceted, but complexity is not achieved until something very specific enters the equation.

I could tell you about my days working special effects for movies and television, I could tell you about my coffee shop in brooklyn, or the custom hive I built for my bees this year. I have a lot of layers, a lot of different facets… but I hate to tell you, none of that makes me a complex person.

In fact, despite a well-rounded colorful life so far, and being a multifaceted character, I deliberately take a note from Lynyrd Skynyrd, and try to be a Simple Man.

Ok, you’re not a member of the site and are about to bail.

Well, before you go, here’s the free take away. The meat and potatoes of this article. Write this on your board above your computer.

Complex characters are ALWAYS highly conflicted characters.

Seven simple words, but the execution is far from simple.

And this is why Character Arcs alone don’t create complex characters.

A character can overcome a flaw and come to a new way of seeing the world (the basis of the character arc), without a high level of internal conflict.

There’s a ton to unpack here.

Now might be a good time for non-members to hit the membership page and join the rest us as we dig into this topic essential to higher level writing.

Let’s get to it.

Character Nature

When we speak of complexity of character, what we’re really talking about is the nature of that character.

At a fundamental level, we express the nature of a character by what we reveal about them (what the reader knows about them), Discovery… and how they act, Behavior.

Discovery is the actual moment the reader learns of a facet to the character they didn’t know existed.

This latter part is important.

Discovery of a character is ALWAYS something already established in the character outside of the reader’s perception. This is the character’s emotional/psychological baggage, their history before the story started, etc.

These discoveries have high narrative relevance because they create the context (or expectations) for the character’s behavior.

The hero samurai is killing everyone left and right. Killing is a bad thing, but can be justified. The reader is left uncertain, until the discovery that all the guys the hero is killing, murdered his family.

The discovery, gives context (and justification–or not) to the behavior.

Of course, a discovery may not be a direct as the example above.

None the less, every discovery, is a clue to the reader that helps them establish context and expectations. Every discovery helps the reader attempt to create order of the narrative unfolding before them.

It’s worth noting here, if the reader discover something about the character AT THE SAME TIME, the character discovers it, this discovery does not give context or expectations. Instead, it moves right into the second way we define a character’s nature, by their behavior.

Behavior are the actions a character takes, or the way they conduct themselves.

More specifically in fiction, character behaviors are the results of reader expectations. Behavior tracks ON or OFF expectations, reinforcing them, or creating uncertainty.

Back to our example, the hero samurai is killing everyone because his family was slaughtered. We see that the character has no qualms about breaking the law and no moral hesitation when it comes to avenging his family. Now the reader expects that the hero will do anything to kill the men responsible. The discovery and behavior come together to create reader expectations.

If the hero samurai reaches the boss responsible for giving the order to kill his family, and then compassionately spares the man’s life… this would certainly be a subversion of the reader’s expectations.

Discovery and Behavior are cumulative, building upon each other as the narrative unfolds.

The more a behavior is enforced, the more it is expected.

Newer writers sometimes have trouble keeping character discovery and behavior consistent, or more accurately, deliberate, through a narrative. When character discovery and behavior contradict, without significant narrative support and purpose, a character rings false in a story.


Before we continue, let’s define the four basic complexity types of characters.

The four basic types of characters, characters' true faces, inner awareness, secondary goals, and the difficulty of choice. I cover it all in the remainder of the article, so what are you waiting for, Sunshine? Go check out the full access page and let's get writing.
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