Making Your Characters Complex
Complex characters have contradictions and nuances, so they never read as one-dimensional or as “types.” Readers usually react well to complexity. So here are some tips for creating complex characters.
Forget Your Character’s Station in Life
The last thing you want to do is try to write a cheerleader who acts like a cheerleader, a truck driver who acts like a truck driver, etc. Stereotypes aren’t just reductive and disrespectful, they’re actually inaccurate. Real-life high school athletes don’t spend all their time giving swirlies to “nerds,” and having belching contests. Writing this way will cause your character to be simple and flat — it calls attention to the construct, which deflates the reading experience. Focus on your character’s particular struggles, and give her traits unique to her—forget about what societal type she belongs to.
Let the Character Lead
One way that complexity takes shape is in subtlety. That is, if a character is too determined, it reads as simplicity. By determined, I mean the reader actually “feels” the writer pushing the character. If the mother has to verbally abuse the child on p. 113 because the writer must create and maintain the dynamic of the demanding mother who damages the child’s self-esteem (which is what causes the child’s reckless behavior….), you have over-determination, which, again, calls out the construct. If, on the other hand, the mother, having vented anger through insults on p. 59, now is a bit nicer due to a good mood, etc., you have more rounded characters.
A good way to achieve this sort of complexity is to let the characters speak to you. After you’ve created them, think of their real-life counterparts. Rather than making them do things to illustrate particular themes, get in touch with what they’d do in certain situations. That will drive the plot in a direction you may not have planned, and it’s hard to give up this control. But it will enhance the complexity of the character, because their actions will not be so similar, tailored toward a particular personality profile. And that brings me to my last tip.
It’s important for your character to have contradictions. The high school jock can be a history buff — he may have a quirky, less-than-erudite way of going about it, but he shouldn’t be without a brain. The English professor can have a weakness for TV shows like “Entourage,” while the wealthy CEO can enjoy stopping by McDonald’s for salty fries. Someone can be ruthless to people who he thinks are cowards, while forgiving of others. A technological whiz can get into trouble during a chase due to having no sense of direction. Generally, readers love contradictions, and if they measure them against people they know in real life, they’ll come off as realistic.
Ultimately, complexity is about faith. Have faith in your characters — let them wander and explore and lead you. Controlling them too much is a path to simplicity.