Creating A Complex Character

My favorite feeling is falling in love with a character. Grinning stupidly whenever they’re on screen or sobbing with them as they struggle. Watching them learn and grow, and cheering for them without restraint, and then that empty ache when the story is over. 

It’s a rare feeling. The greatest challenge for me when I write a story is attempting to give this feeling to the reader. I am not always successful — it’s the most difficult task in storytelling. But each time I fall in love with a character, I learn a little bit more about how to replicate that process. 

This is, of course, a bare bones overview. Characters are insanely complex things to discuss. I would argue characters are far more complex than us humans. Each of these points I will assuredly discuss again, at a later date, in more detail. But for now, this is a good summary of what I have learned. 

Motivation

All characters need motivation. Motivation has two parts: a what and a why. The “what” is more superficial. It can be anything. True love, treasure, a friend, a castle, personal growth, adventure. I find it helpful to imagine the moment in which the character achieves their desire. What are they holding in their hands or their hearts? Who surrounds them? What are they thinking about?

The what is not nearly so important as the why. A character can want true love, and seek it, and find it, and that makes for a compelling romance novel. But when the novel explores why the character wants true love, it reaches another level of poignance and thematic power. Answering the question of why your character wants something often is an easy way to strike at the very core of who that character is. 

Flaw

Character flaws make a story interesting. You don’t need to like a character to fall in love with them. In fact, most of my crushes are on villains who I would never want to invite to a dinner party but who I adore watching on the screen or page. 

Choosing a flaw for a character is a delicate process. Flaws should be relevant to who the character is at their core and to the story itself. If you have a character whose flaw is, say, murderous rampages, but then that aspect of the character is never explored, they never grow, and the story never concerns it, then it’s not much of a flaw. Indeed, many stories are centered entirely around the flaw and overcoming it. This is the most basic and eternal form of character arcs. 

Take Prince Zuko, from the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. His character flaw is, principally, that he’s doing the wrong thing. The rest of his story is the process of him realizing that and redeeming himself. What makes Zuko so compelling is his struggle as he turns himself around. Fixing his flaw digs at who he is at a very base level. It requires him to confront his father and his sister over the way they sculpted and manipulated him. Zuko’s flaw is a central element of his character and the story as a whole. 

I would advise you to steer clear of flaws that are based only in personality. Being an obnoxious person isn’t much of a flaw if it is left at such a surface level. Rather, I find it helpful to connect the innards of a character with their outtards. Zuko’s flaw is not that he shouts or is angry or is kinda annoying. Those personality traits result from his deeper flaw; he’s doing evil deeds, and knows it. 

Change

Dynamism is essential to a character. The process of their change more often than not ecompasses the entirety of the story and drives its events. 

They can change in many ways. Commonly, they overcome their flaw. But some stories focus on negative change, a deepening of the flaw. Other stories focus on a revelation concerning a hidden nature. Others focus on establishing a relationship between two characters. All of these count as change. 

Change should be directly tied to motivation. Their motivation, and the pursuit of that motivation, is the vehicle that drives their change. I would advise you to steer clear of having a character’s motivation be change. Rather, focus on finding ways to cause change as a result of motivation. Let motivation be a more physical goal, something the character can hold in their hand, so to speak. Let the mental goal follow naturally as a result of achieving the physical goal. 

Indeed, it can be powerful to consider the idea of  ‘change’ as a secondary motivation for your character. But this time, it is not a motivation they are aware of, or at least, it is a motivation they are afraid of admitting. It is something they keep hidden, even from themselves. 

Again, consider Prince Zuko. His flaw is his evildoing. But his motivation is not simply “do good things, instead of evil ones”. His motivation is to capture the protagonist, Aang. This is a physical and definite objective. In the process of doing so, he learns to do good things, and fixes his flaw. 

Not all characters should change. Your protagonist and antagonist, definitely. Their supporting relationships, probably. But everyone else? Most characters in a story are content to exist as they are, and they serve a valuable function in doing so, as a way to induce change in other characters and as a metric for measuring that change.  

Contradictions

Robert McKee, in Story, describes his opinion on  what makes a character interesting, and it is one that resonated well with me. Essentially, McKee argues, characters are interesting when they have contradictions in their nature. The more contradictions, the more interesting. 

For example, take Han Solo, from Star Wars. Han Solo is likeable because of the contradiction inherent to his roguish nature and his heart of gold. The juxtaposition of those two traits is powerfully dynamic. 

Or, consider Snape, from Harry Potter. Snape is far and away the most interesting character in that series, and it is because of his contractions. He’s mean to Harry, but looks after him. He’s stern and cold, but deeply emotional. He (spoilers, but you definitely already know) loves Dumbledore, but kills him. These contractions are fascinating. The reader asks themselves how they came to be, how they could possibly coexist. It makes his character into an intriguing mystery. 

I structure contradictions around two conflicting statements, connected by a “but”. The character is this way, but also the direct opposite way. For main characters, I might have a list of 5 or 6 powerful contradictions. For supporting roles, I keep it to just 1 or 2.  That’s just personal preference, though. 

Relationships

A relationship with another character is principal to making both characters interesting. Relationships are like the idea of contradictions, above, but in a macro sense. The character is this way, but this other character is that way. Perhaps it’s helpful to think about your story as its own character, and the relationships inside as the contradictions that make it interesting. 

In any case, relationships are useful for a couple of reasons. First, they’re just fun to watch. A dynamic relationship between two characters is more enjoyable than anything else. Two friends with chemistry, working together to solve a problem. A protagonist and an antagonist who respect each other even as they compete. Like contradictions, relationships get more interesting the more opposite two characters are. A character and their foil forced to coexist is the premise of like every buddy cop movie ever made. 

But second, relationships are ways to drag out different sides to your character that they wouldn’t otherwise have shown to the reader. If your character is a gruff bounty hunter, that’s all they will present. But pair that gruff bounty hunter with a child who reminds them of who they used to be, and their gruff exterior will soften. Pair that bounty hunter with a villain they detest, and they will show determination and resilience. Pair that bounty hunter with a love interest, and they will start to reveal passion and emotion. Use relationships to plumb the depths of your characters. 

Hidden Nature

This is much more optional than some of the above techniques. I found that by answering the above questions, especially brainstorming contradictions, my characters already possessed a hidden nature, and I didn’t have to work at it. 

A hidden nature is simply any side of your character that they don’t show to the general public. This isn’t an essential thing for every character. But thinking about what your character keeps hidden, why they keep it hidden, and how that secret eventually and inevitably gets revealed, is a helpful process. 

Physicality and Personality

These two are the most fun parts of character creation, but they are also the most superficial. In my own character creation process, I find that I imagine physicality and personality first, and then promptly ignore them to move on to the more relevant things. 

However, both of these are still important. In what is swift becoming a common thread for this article, physicality and personality are most interesting when they contradict each other and themselves. A giant who speaks in a soft voice. A gangster who wears hand knitted sweaters. 

I will sometimes imagine my character in passing situations. If I’m in class, I imagine my character sitting next to me. What are they wearing? Did they arrive late? Are they slumped over, bored, or sitting straight backed, attentive? It’s like a little game I play with myself, and it proves to be an effective exercise. 

Characters should also sound distinctive from each other. Not just in their actual voices, but what and how they say things. This is more than just an accent. Are they easily angered, do they speak in exclamations, are they quiet in large groups, timid, braggadocious. A fun challenge is to write different lines of dialogue for your characters without the name tags attached, and to see if you can spot the difference. 

Finally, though, I would advise you not to focus too hard on this part of your character. Don’t define your character by how they look or sound. Define them by their decisions and their relationships and their goals. 

Physicality and personality are at their most useful when they serve as keys into your character’s psychology. The gangster wearing hand knitted sweaters is more than just a gimmick, it’s a clue that they care about their mother and that they don’t care about what other people think of them. The reasons why a character looks and sounds the way they do are more compelling than what they look and sound like. 

Competence

A much smaller point: it’s fun to read about a character who is competent. This competence can be in anything; social interaction, fighting, math, you name it. But giving a character a skill that they are better than anyone else at is an easy way to make them seem cool and likeable. It plays into the escapist part of fiction — when I’m reading, I read to feel like someone else. I’d rather feel like someone who has a skill than someone who is totally useless. 

Suffering

Your character should suffer. A lot. In ways that really really hurt them. Similar to competence, suffering is an easy way to make them relatable. We all know what it’s like to suffer, at least a little bit. If your character suffers too, it inspires empathy. 

The easiest way to make a character likeable is to make them suffer in an unfair way. Have someone lie and take credit for their work, have someone not believe them, have them be cheated by the system. A small warning though — this kind of suffering is often superficial. It’s useful when creating an immediate connection, but it’s difficult to create a truly meaningful story if the principal plot point is based off of a miscommunication. 

Additional Note

Sometimes the most compelling characters are the ones who are noticeably missing one of these aspects. Characters without flaws, or without motivations, or without change, or without relationships make for some of the most interesting characters in fiction. 

Writing is full of rules, and the first rule of writing is that you’re allowed to break all of the rules. But the second rule of writing is that you should know why you’re breaking the rule. 

My Character Sheet

Everybody creates characters in their own way, and every way is valid. This is simply the way that I find the most useful, and if you find it useful as well, feel free to claim it and personalize it and make it your own. 

  • Name
  • A paragraph or seven on physical description and personality
  • Flaw (s)
  • Contradiction (s)
  • Greatest Fear
  • Change
  • Hidden Nature
  • Motivation
  • A list of their relationships with other characters, how they feel about those relationships, and what purpose to the story those relationships are meant to serve. 

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