Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Writing a complex character

Well today I finally get to go back to my roots a little, as a writing blogger. Hmm. Sorry, that's a bit of a terrible way to put it.

I blog about writing. Sometimes I blog about my own writing progress, other times I dig into some aspect of writing for whoever feels the need for advice and/or information. 

So. 

Complex characters. 

If you think about it, complex characters are the Holy Grail of characterization. It's something even some best sellers fail miserably at. Not naming names, but I'm sure you can find a few in your memory where their books had great plot, but almost no character depth. 

I also get the feeling that, if you found this post in a search, you're probably plot-driven writer. There's nothing in the world wrong with that. You'll write page-turners, with your natural sense of plot. 

You also know that flat characters are standing between your novel and brilliance. 

Complexity isn't easy to create, though. Yet it is. Sorry. I know this seems confusing, but bear with me. 

Now I'm going to briefly confuse you more. In my own experience of writing, creating a complex character is about not creating him or her. It's simply about creating a character. 

But you've done that, you might say. 

Yes you have. What you haven't done, is give the reader subtle glimpses of the character's other sides. 

Yes, the baddy is amazingly evil. Why? Did someone hurt him? Is he secretly an idealist? Only you know. If your answer is that the baddy is evil because he's evil, odds are he's flat. 

Same goes for your protagonist. No person is perfect. And flat, perfect guys are boring. I'm not saying you should go and change the character into an anti-hero. Anti-heroes can be flat too. Because they're just assholes who stumble into saving the day. 

Everyone has good characteristics and bad ones. Everyone has things they want and don't want. Everyone has bad moments. Everyone has good moments. 

For an excellent and recent example of what I mean, watch Skyfall. The villain is capable of terrible cruelty. He's smart, ruthless and willing to kill to get what he wants. And what he wants is to destroy M. 

But. He's not all about murder and bloodshed. A significant portion of him is, yes. But there are moments when M makes him cry. He's even capable of being incredibly gentle and caring. When he tries to convince Bond to go rogue, he tries to make it look like it's the sensible thing to do. It honestly feels as if he's doing it because he thinks he'd help Bond. After all, if he didn't give a damn, he could have killed him. On the other hand, it might be because he knows he'd hurt M by turning Bond against her. 

All of that going on with a single villain. 

That's depth. 

Giving the character a chance to show more than one side to their personality. 

Your job is to do it with subtlety. Which is the hard part.  


How do you write complex characters? 

Before I go, I want to let you know that I'm willing to answer any writing and edit-related questions on my blog and by e-mail. If you have one, please contact me at mishagericke(AT)gmail(DOT)com

OOH yes! Don't forget to check out my Word Master Challenge. It's a great, fun way to stretch your writing skills and there are prizes to be won.  

41 comments:

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I hope I write complex characters. I do love reading about complex antagonists, especially when we get a peek at their goodness, even if he has only a sliver of the stuff.

Jill Haugh said...

Misha,
you bring up so very many good points about characterization.
I think this is yet another good reason to be read by a CP. Sometimes, we get to know our characters so well, we "forget" or omit--rather telling descriptions, actions, or details that help the reader clue in to what or charaters are about. I find it interesting to question (read: grill) others on my characters motiviations and such to see if I've done enough to flesh them out sufficiently, and sometimes I find I've left obvious holes that weren't so obvious until someone points them out.
Thanks for the insights.
~Just Jill

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

Wonderful post. :)
One of my current favorite bad guys is Rumplestiltzkin on Once Upon a Time. He's bad, yet you totally sympathize with him. (Or at least I do.) :)

Suze said...

I read recently in a compilation of answers from several authors that complexity in a character is evoked by contradictions. It's simple, and nothing new, but reiterated by more than one scribbling mind makes it worth chewing on.

Mark Means said...

Great post! Just the other day I had written a post about characters and whether I was in depth enough with them. It seems to be a common question among writerly types :)

The "flawed" character is always the most interesting, in my opinion.

J. A. Bennett said...

Great ideas here. It's so hard to find that balance, but when a character is alive in your head nothing can stop you.

Johanna Garth said...

Well written complex characters are the stuff that keep us reading and always searching for the next book like a drug fix. Thanks for highlighting how important character building is, Misha!

nutschell said...

wonderful points. I do love me some complex characters. :) And if the author manages to make them three-dimensional in my mind, I'm sure to come back to the book again and again.


Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

michelle said...

Great points!
And I liked Suze's comment that "complexity in a character is evoked by contradictions"... that's something to chew on...

Romance Book Haven said...

Hi Misha,

Some of the most amusing characters in literature where caricutures rather than characters. One becomes aware of this with lots of reading practise.

Romance Book Haven said...

Sorry, I meant 'caricatures'.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. And a past that influenced both.

Al said...

Fabulous post. The trick is finding time/space to develop a character.

Elise Fallson said...

Haven't seen Skyfall but when I do I'll be looking out for this. Writing complex characters is what keeps me reading and it's something I'm trying to achieve in my wip. I love characters that dance around the line between good and evil, the ones that make you give into them when you know you shouldn't.

Nick Wilford said...

Real people are amazingly complex. Great points here. Yeah, you need to look at why they might have certain traits, and have them conflicting themselves in certain ways. We all have contradictions within ourselves!

Cynthia said...

I write complex characters by viewing them as real people. Real people have flaws, and they have strengths too.

And you're right- no one's perfect!

Ciara said...

Yes, a villain should be a three-dimensional characters. Should not be just bad people. :) Great post for writers.

Nicole said...

I'm a character gal all the way, so I love reading and writing complex characters.

Neil Vogler said...

Some nice tips and observations here, Misha. I read a good rule recently about 'the fudge test'. It said, by halfway through a book, no matter the genre, the reader should always have a good idea of how any one of the main characters would react if they were offered a free piece of fudge.

Sounds stupid. But this actually quite a useful way of nailing down, in your own mind, exactly how a given character would act or react in a specific situation. Helps when you're fleshing out those complex little beasties.

Melissa said...

Great post! I'm still studying this aspect of the craft, but I think the first thing that has to happen is we have to see the character in our minds and get to know them. If they aren't real in our head, they won't have a snowball's chance of being real on the page.

Matthew MacNish said...

Characters are more important than plot, if you ask me. Sure, I love a great plot as much as anyone, but even the best plots are even more entertaining when they're filled with compelling characters.

Misha Gericke said...

Me too. I mean there are some very famous baddies who are card-board cut-outs, but that's very hard to do.

I must say that I love seeing little glimpses of goodness in my baddies.

Misha Gericke said...

That's so true!

By the time I finished a novel, I never knew if I did enough to make my characters come across right.

:-)

Misha Gericke said...

Haven't read it, but that makes me want to. :-)

Misha Gericke said...

Yeah that's so true. Contradictions are hard, though, but they are vital.

Misha Gericke said...

Definitely. All characters should have flaws. Flaws can often be a source of conflict in a novel, so they're too good to waste. :-)

Misha Gericke said...

So true! Feels that often times, I only have to write down what my characters are telling me and it'll be fine.

Misha Gericke said...

Do true!

Misha Gericke said...

I generally tend not to go back to books, but I'll definitely go hunting for sequels and other books by the author.

Misha Gericke said...

Thanks! Always happy to know people find something to chew on on my blog, even if I didn't write it. :-D

Misha Gericke said...

I agree with you that caricatures are funny, but then they're written for another purpose.

When the book you're writing has a serious(ish) plot, it's better to have them be complex.

Of course, that only my opinion, though.

Misha Gericke said...

Oh definitely. That'll probably be my topic for next week.

:-)

Misha Gericke said...

Definitely. I generally develop mine on the page, because my point of view is that my characters arrive fully developed and I only need to get to know them. :-)

Misha Gericke said...

I adore characters like that as well. I guess that's why one of my main characters are written that way.

Misha Gericke said...

Exactly. I'm definitely planning to do a post on motivation in the near future. :-)

Misha Gericke said...

I do that too!

Misha Gericke said...

Thanks! :-)

Misha Gericke said...

Same here. Plot's important too, but I've read some great plot stories that were kept from excellence in my mind because there wasn't a character arc.

Misha Gericke said...

I love the sound of it. Makes perfect sense to me. :-D

Misha Gericke said...

I agree with you 100%.

Misha Gericke said...

I agree with you. It's always a pity when a plot falls flat because there's not any good characterization.

:-)