For Writers on the Verge of Writing Spectacularly Complex Characters

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.

For Writers on the Verge of Writing Spectacularly Complex Characters

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

Story by Robert McKee

Story by Robert McKee (affiliate link)

The most interesting complexities in your character will arise not just from two different aspects of his self–but from two contrasting aspects. In Story, Robert McKee says,

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?
For Writers on the Verge of Writing Spectacularly Complex Characters

Daredevil (2015), Marvel Studios.

  • Do we expect an iron-backed nun to be riddled with religious and personal doubts?
For Writers on the Verge of Writing Spectacularly Complex Characters

Doubt (2008), Miramax.

  • Do we expect a child from the streets of India to win Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
For Writers on the Verge of Writing Spectacularly Complex Characters

Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Celador Films.

  • Do we expect the immoral alcoholic Sydney Cartier to sacrifice his life for his romantic rival?
For Writers on the Verge of Writing Spectacularly Complex Characters

The Tale of Two Cities (1958), The Rank Organisation.

  • Do we expect a deformed bell ringer to be a gypsy girl’s champion?
For Writers on the Verge of Writing Spectacularly Complex Characters

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), RKO Radio Pictures.

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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. My protagonist is a charismatic leader with a huge following who believes himself incapable of directing anything big to success. The main character is a self righteous legalistic who spies for the money to buy back his beloved farm and the hero of the novel believes that the protagonist will save them all but lies to him constantly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      These are great examples. A superb way to bring this sense of dichotomy to a character is by having him do the right thing for the wrong reason – or the wrong thing for the right reason.

  2. I agree with this. In the wake of the recent “phenomenon” of grown men (and women) falling in love with My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, many fans say that the complexity of the characters keep them interested despite the show being aimed primarily for children. The leader of the main characters is also an introvert and a bookworm. The shyest character might be afraid of talking to others, but she’ll cuddle with big, scary beasts like they were puppies. The tomboy agrees to participate in a fashion show with little fuss. The writing staff is praised by the fans for going against their expectations and avoiding stereotypes.

    Whatever your personal feeling of the “adults liking children’s shows”, you can’t deny that there is something to be learned from the show’s success.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. I think you’re the first person to ever reference My Little Pony on this blog. :p I admit it wasn’t at the top of my view list. But maybe I should change my mind!

  3. I have a character who’s a protector by nature, yet he can’t protect himself. He’s one of my favorite characters and I never get tired of writing him and looking for places to bring his POV into other books in his home series.

    In the current WIP, the hero just wants to be loved for who he is. But he doesn’t know who he is anymore.

  4. thomas h cullen says

    All comes down to formulas (just like real life).. Darth Vader, and Hannibal Lector. Two both classic villains, connotative of the absolute deepest, wicked associations.

    Yet, take both these two figures out of their “formulaic context”, and stay with them, hour by hour.. Then what?

    There’s no such truth, as character complexity (or character, for that matter), just “formulaic cues”, and “genre machinations”.

    Who is Croyan, hour by hour, typical day to day? Essentially just somebody who’s no different from any other (indeed, he may well be something of a “special behavioural identity”, but, applied just as strictly to the very same principle as Vader and Lector..).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      People are simple in their complexity and complex in their simplicity. Good characters are no different.

      • thomas h cullen says

        I was reluctant to say it all.. what drove me, however, is the same s what’s required to transcend our reality: the desire to “break it down”.

        Croyan isn’t a character, the same as how neither Luke Skywalker or The Matrix’s Neo aren’t characters.. they’re all “formulaic identities”, the very literal truth which can actually be applied to real people, such as myself.

        That’s the whole deal with me: breaking down reality, so that then real people can progress from it.

  5. Ashley Macallahan says

    My current hero is a battle hardend soldior who would kill indiscrminately but is fiercely protective. My heroine is kind and fair but also discriminate.

  6. Elizabeth Richards says

    Another way of looking at this is to identify your character’s values and then put two of those values in conflict. My character values loyalty and belonging. Her lie is that she belives that only Lord Sinclair can give her a home (belonging.) The truth is that other people care for her. But even as she learns this an extended conflict is that Lord Sinclar has gone missing. In order to be loyal, Ana must give up her new found belonging to go find him.

    Even though her values are not intrensicly conflicting (like greed and generosity would be), circumstances force her to chose between them

    Poor Ana, nothing is easy.

  7. Catherine says

    Hmm… Well, my protagonist is deeply loyal to her master — I think she would literally die for him if necessary. He demands unquestioning obedience, which she honestly wants to give him… And yet, her long-buried sense of compassion is often totally at odds with what he does and what she must do in his service. She has the abilities and temperament of a healer, he’s a mage who has no qualms about torturing and killing.

    Something like that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Something exactly like that!

      • Catherine says

        Haha, good to know. 🙂

        I find that having a push and pull like this in this particular character forces me to address some hard questions that wouldn’t be so much of an issue if she was more one-sided. I’ve found myself genuinely conflicted over whether she should end up facing justice for her actions or whether she should be allowed mercy. Not easy for me to work through as the author, but it hopefully makes for a more dramatic and satisfying story in the end.

  8. I always look forward to your posts! Loved it! Thank you.

    One of the most dichotomous characters in my current WIP is the antag/villain, and I show it from the moment we meet him acting in defense of the sidekick character he’s responsible for capturing. Not as a facade, nor being possessive, but out of sheer instinctual revulsion. The dynamic of the relationship that develops from that moment on and throughout the series is in my humble opinion deliciously ripe with tension and humanity. One of my favorite aspects of the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We often have the opportunity to demonstrate especially good dichotomies in our antagonists, since we can go deep into the darkness. Even protags usually won’t be *that* conflicted.

      • Absolutely! And of course how that complexity/darkness/ whatever in any given situation inherently brings out dichotomies in the protagonists and vice versa.

  9. My protagonist is confused and weighed down by her past whilst trying to balance her religious upbringing and a job that forces her to choose life or death for others in order to complete the task.

  10. Nathalie Yeo says

    My character is a fighter for justice, a revolution instigator working to achieve noble goals for the nation`better future yet harboring a dark cunning plan for a private revenge. A revenge that served as a catalyst to embark on his current journey. A revenge that would eventually force him to choose between death and love.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice: a good overall goal conflicted by a potentially very dark personal goal. Lots of room for inner conflict there!

  11. Good insights and this is helpful as I try to create a character and to tell a story that I know very well (I wrote a dissertation on it). Thanks.

  12. What a great article, I can’t wait to share! I love the examples that you give to help explain, really helps my understanding!

  13. I love that you refrenced Story by McKee. That is a great book. I read it in college and am reading it again now. I love his approache to story and characters and how nothing is seperate. You can’t have a story without characters and there are no characters without stories.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s an incredible book, one of my all-time recommendations. I can’t believe it took me as long to read it as it did. But it’ll be on my shelf for the rest of my life now.

  14. I think every author who hears a reviewer say, “the characters felt flat” or heard them described as “flat, boring, or cardboard cutouts” should read this article.
    After all, how many people do we know that are just…well, anything? The dichotomy element is important in that when you have that contradiction it almost always becomes a complement (the one with an ‘e’). As a reader, we are drawn to those characters who wrestle with these contradictions. As a writer, we must learn to create conflict that is interesting and believable.
    This post is a wonderful reminder of why certain stories and characters really grab our attention.
    Thanks K.M. for another great piece of advice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yep, it really is all about conflict. We need conflict not just with the antagonist, but deeply, fundamentally within the character himself.

  15. I think this makes the difference between a great story and an ok one. A few of the recent critically acclaimed books I’ve read recently have amazing plots and frustratingly shallow characters that felt created to be interesting and then follrather than “real” people with all their associated idiosyncrasies.

    That’s partly why I go back to those trusted authors who seem to let their characters live and grow: Terry Pratchett’s witches with their conflicting outlooks and methods who grate each other until they work perfectly, trying to do what’s best, even if it isn’t what people want; Anne Rice’s vampires whose living morals and experiences conflict with their needs and abilities as immortals, etc. You can really believe these characters have led a full life and it affects them subtly, like real people, rather than feeling gimmicky as just a checkbox in the author’s latest writing plan.

    I find with my characters I can’t plan more than a guideline of what will happen, because I have to write until I get to know them. It’s time consuming but once they come to life it’s easy to know how they would act and why, and my writing of their scenes flows so much better that it ultimately feels worth it. I suppose it’s like letting them compost through writing about them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Gimmicky” is a good word for unfulfilling characters. If they’re there just to serve the plot, then do become, in essence, a gimmick.

  16. I have a child from well to do family who lost his parents in foreign city and now grows on a street. He wants security, safety and love. What he really needs is to learn to live independently, how to value friendship and most of all how to overcome his fears.
    The arc is such that a child grows from a scared boy into a fairly ruthless and violent gangster. Becoming a much more capable man even if at expense of conventional morality.

  17. Thanks for another insightful article! I didn’t realize my main character even had conflicting goals or a desire/need conflict until I read this. I’m still working out the details, but basically he’s in hiding and NEEDS to leave the country in order to live a normal life, but he WANTS to stay and be with the woman he loves. Even when he finds out that she doesn’t love him back, he stays hoping that he can somehow help her to see that they’re perfect for each other. Essentially, he stands for love and selflessness in the story, but at the end you find out that he’s also killed someone. Trying to work it out so that last bit isn’t too jarring.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! Great examples! I love it when the conflicting needs are two equally good and pressing things.

  18. I love this post KM! Just because our characters have great strengths doesn’t mean they can’t also have insecurities- that is what makes them believable!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely! Larger-than-life characters need to have just as many larger-than-life flaws as they do virtues.

  19. This. Is. Brilliant.

    Wonderfully explained, Katie, and something I needed to hear, since I always worry about my characters not being diverse enough in their characteristics. It makes perfect sense.

    Thank you. 🙂

  20. My character has a contradiction between his notions of honor, which require that he must be a warrior, and his innate handicap. The conflict escalates when his family is killed, and to prove the guilt of the murderer, he must defeat him in a duel. He fails and gets exiled from the country. He has a death wish at this point, but gradually realizes that he can achieve revenge and regain his honor other way. He is proud, hot-tempered and inclined to self-hate, but also noble-hearted, smart and charming.

  21. Dayle Trice says

    Having a complex character is a good thing because it can also make a story more complex. And that should be entertaining.

  22. I have trouble with this but am working on a character who wants to be a good sister to her siblings and has always helped them. However, some will die by her hand. I need to show her struggle with this.

  23. I have a good first MC who is a troll named Gabriel. He was raised in basically an adoptive situation and knows nothing about being a troll or why people hate him because of his species. He is torn by his instincts, his desire to be himself, and his desire to know more about what he is.

    My other MC is an elf named Jairus. He is a speciesist who is pretty much a terrible person but is starting to realize his preconcieved notions of humans and certain situations aren’t exactly accurate or good. and is thus struggling with finding a medium ground between what he currently believes and what he should believe, as well as what he’s feeling

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good job – especially with Jairus. He seems like a good person with bad views – and that always makes for an interesting arc.

  24. I believe that another aspect of the complex character is how him or her tries to search a compromise between contraddictions. Complexity is the sum of all contraddictions. What do you think?

  25. My main character is a thief who the death of her fiance, has her making the wrong choices, do to her need for revenge. Her father knows nothing of this, and her Elven mother is locked into the duty of protecting the city, unable to raise and guide her. She want’s to be freed from the god taking over her body, to get away from those that judge her, to have her fiance back that was killed.

    She needs to learn to trust people, to stop thinking of herself so much, to see what’s in front to her the whole time.To realize she’s not a bad person, that she’s made bad choices, to learn to accept her human and elven half. Along with not dyeing while getting there.

    Her ark? … She grows from being mostly self centered to letting her generosity, and kindness that she was (mostly) hiding come though.She becomes more heroic over time and learns to fight her inner demons, along with the literal (god) one.

  26. Hey,

    Thanks for posting this. I’m working on a MC who isn’t interesting enough yet in my opinion. I mean he is interesting but I feel he lacks something. I just don’t know what it is yet. And then there’s his objective that needs some work too.

  27. K.M. I’ve been a fan of you for a while. Your site has helped my writing immensely. Thanks for all the great info!

    My theme is reclaiming wholeness, because of that there is a lot of dichotomy in my characters. Jaze wants to love but is afraid of being hurt. He’s protective but to a scary violent extent. Seren wants to tell Jaze the truth (that she isn’t human) but is afraid of his rejection, so much so that she split herself into pieces and those rejected pieces of self are trying to kill her.

    My books are on Amazon, I’ve separated the book into sections since it was my first time writing a novel and I wasn’t sure I had any talent. Luckily I’ve had incredibly supportive fans and great reviews so I’ve continued. I’m now on part three and thanks to you, Jenna Moreci, Ellen Brock, and Christine Frazier, each section is better than the last. (I came across your blog via the pod cast you did with Christine, btw)

    I keep hoping you ladies will do a super seminar where you sell tickets so all of us fans can meet you and thank you personally for the incredible help you’ve been.

    I also hope I become an author whose name you will recognize so we can do some vlogs together!

    Anyway thanks for your books and especially for sharing all your writing insights!!!

    Wishing you millions of sales,


  28. Ryan Ouellette says

    Thanks for this post! It’s really helping me shape my characters for my current WIP.

  29. please explain what an “organic trait” of character/personality is in the context of your article. thanks

  30. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    A trait that is pertinent to the overall story – not one that’s shoehorned in just to provide contrast within the character’s personality.

  31. thank you… never tried forcing characteristics on my people… they kind of come pre-set 😀 Thank you for the explanation. It all made sense till I got there…and now it all does.


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