For Writers on the Verge of Writing Spectacularly Complex Characters

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

1. Story by Robert McKee

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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • Do we expect a deformed bell ringer to be a gypsy girl’s champion?

For Writers on the Verge of Writing Spectacularly Complex Characters

V8374c_JaneEyre.inddThe 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?


For Writers on the Verge of Writing Spectacularly Complex Characters

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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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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,


  8. Ryan Ouellette says

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


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