The most ironic thing about complex characters in fiction is that the essence of what makes them so wonderfully complicated is actually incredibly simple. Complex characters are complex for one reason: dichotomy. That one word is the solution to all your character problems. Cliched stereotypes? Fixed. Dysfunctional character arcs? Done. Boring personalities? No more!
For all its grand simplicity, dichotomous complexity in our characters can actually be surprisingly easy to overlook. We can get so caught up in creating a hero or a loner or an orphan or an idealist that we forget what makes any person interesting is the surprising contrasts, the seeming contradictions–the place in our lives where our virtues collide and coexist with our faults.
Creating Complex Characters in Their Beliefs and Motives
We sometimes use “complex” synonymously with “complicated.” But what complex really means is “made up of many working parts.” Complex characters are those who have more than one facet. Remember when we were studying character arcs, and we talked about how any character change must revolve around two completely opposite beliefs: the Truth and the Lie (as represented by the Thing the Character Needs and the Thing the Character Wants). It is these two beliefs, at war within the character, that creates the catalyst for fascinating themes and character studies.
A character who wants one thing, pursues it with single-minded focus, and achieves it is boring. How much better when he wants and believes in two totally different–and, even better, exclusive–things? We all do this. Be super-model skinny and also eat ice cream before bed every night? You bet!
In real life, this ability of ours is often frustrating, but it’s always an opportunity for learning more about ourselves and the world in which we live. Same goes for our characters. In Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black, Death wants to end his loneliness by living as a human, while on another level he is compelled to continue his duty as the Grim Reaper.
Creating Complex Characters in Their Roles
When we think of characters, we tend to simplify them to their main attribute or role. Emma Woodhouse is a matchmaker. Jason Bourne is a fugitive. Rodion Raskolnikov is a murderer. These are their primary roles and functions within their stories. But if that’s all they were, we would have promptly forgotten them after closing the covers on their stories.
No person can be defined by any single role. Emma is also a devoted daughter, beneficent noble lady, and loyal friend. Bourne is also an assassin, an ex-soldier, and an occasional protector. Raskolnikov is also a friend and a philosopher.
Take a moment to list all your character’s roles, then rank them in the order in which he identifies with them most strongly. I came up with the following list for the antagonist in my work-in-progress Wayfarer:
Ruler, Rich Man, Gentleman, Leader, Businessman, Father, Husband, Gutter Rat, Illegitimate Child, Poor Trash
Not every role will play a crucial part in your story, but every role will define this person in some way.
Creating Complex Characters With Contradictions
Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent. It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, then in one scene have him kick a cat.
- Do we expect the superpowered vigilante Daredevil to also be a questing Catholic?
- Do we expect an iron-backed nun to be riddled with religious and personal doubts?
- Do we expect a child from the streets of India to win Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
- Do we expect the immoral alcoholic Sydney Cartier to sacrifice his life for his romantic rival?
- Do we expect a deformed bell ringer to be a gypsy girl’s champion?
The most interesting complex characters arise out of unexpected contradictions. Jason Bourne remains one of my favorite characters because the inherent decency of the man is at complete odds with his past as an assassin. We love Han Solo not because he’s a dashing scoundrel, but because he’s a scoundrel who somehow always stumbles into doing the right thing. Jane Eyre remains one of the most popular love stories of all time, not because Edward Rochester is a white knight, but because he is decidedly the opposite: a man of darkness with the goodness inside struggling to find any reason to exist.
Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Complex Characters
If they’re going to work, these contradictions must be fundamental within both the character’s personality and the story itself. Bourne’s decency doesn’t matter unless it wells up from the heart of his inner conflict. It doesn’t matter to us unless the plot offers him repeated opportunities to demonstrate it.
Consider your characters and check their complexity by asking yourself the following questions:
- What is your character’s primary role in your story?
- What other roles will he fill during the story?
- How can these roles create interesting contradictions and subtext?
- What is your character’s primary goal?
- What other things does he want that might conflict with the primary goal?
- What one organic trait would most dramatically contrast your character’s main role or goal?
As you craft your story, make sure you don’t get so caught up in all the bazillion-and-one other things needing checked off your list that you fail to present all of your character’s possible dimensions. Creating even just a few simple dichotomies within your character’s personality can be all that’s necessary to take him from the verge of spectacular to truly and memorably complex.
Tell me your opinion: What contrasting traits have you chosen to use to create complex characters in your fiction?
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