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Building Complex Characters

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Cain and Abel - Building Complex Characters - Compelling Characters - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

Cain and Abel by Titian via Wikimedia Commons

One of the best things about good stories is great characters.  In a memorable story, the main character shares the stage with a cast of other similarly complex characters.  We don’t need to have 20 super complex characters, unless you’re writing some kind of epic, but we should definitely have more than one, and almost definitely more than 2 or 3.  Side note/disclaimer: I don’t like stories about man vs. nature where it’s literally just one dude/dudette against the elements, a la Robinson Crusoe, Castaway, Hatchet, etc.; those stories are great naptime inducers.

How do we create these complex characters?

  1. Each of your main ensemble characters should have their own character arc.  That means they have an objective or three.  This is even better if their objectives clash directly with the main character’s objectives – plot fireworks!  For example, in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Matilda’s little buddy Lavendar wants to be just as cool as the upper grade kids, and this character arc has some serious unintended consequences for Matilda.  When Matilda is falsely accused of being behind one of Lavendar’s pranks (a prank she set up to get in with the cool kids), the ensuing events are set in motion with no turning back.
  2. Be very strategic in your choice of details.  Although it’s very important to include details about our characters (this is something we really must do), a little goes a long way.  In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a telling detail about main character Jonas’s best friend Asher does double duty, not only revealing a bit about Asher, but contrasting it directly with Jonas:  “Jonas was careful about language, not like his friend, Asher, who talked too fast and mixed things up, scrambling words and phrases until they were barely recognizable and very funny.”  Jonas’s attention to detail and thoughtfulness are thrown into sharp relief when held up next to his sloppy, funny best friend.  (For more on detail, check out last week’s post about character tags).
  3. Dynamic situations.  Situations where characters are forced to reevaluate their stances or their past decisions – these are some great character-revealing situations.  Severus Snape, of Harry Potter fame, presents a fantastic example.  When he finds out that the woman he’s loved since childhood – Harry’s mother, Lily – is in danger, he becomes a double agent.  Even though he carries a deep dislike of Harry, carried over from his hatred of Harry’s father, he changes the course of many lives in his time as a double agent, Harry’s especially.
  4. Your plot should not be able to stay the same if you removed one of the characters.  The characters and plot ought to be so intertwined that you cannot remove a character without affecting the plot.  Can you imagine Top Gun without Maverick?  Not so much.  If you can remove a character without affecting the plot, that character probably didn’t belong in the first place.

How else can we create complex characters?  Who are some of your favorite complex characters?

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About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

23 responses

  1. Great read! Thanks for sharing :)

  2. Thanks again! I may not comment much (which I’ll try to remedy), but I look forward to your blog posts. I’m working on bringing my webcomic to the next level and am always tweaking the story and characters as well as the art. Your posts and helpful links always give me something to think about!

    • Happy to give you something to think about! One of the great things about writing is that there’s always more fun stuff to learn about. :-)

  3. I like the concept of number 4. The characters really do need to be linked. If not, the constant ebbs and flows of conflict, which fuel character development (and ultimately the characters’ arcs) would not be possible. One character’s actions must trigger another character’s actions and so on.

    • It’s definitely helpful to outline in advance to make sure all the characters are linked. It’s so much harder to go back and remove a character that I’ve gotten to know (but who is also not moving the plot forward).

  4. Nice post Christi. What I am struggling with right now is how much detail to add in regard to other characters’ story lines, outside of the main three characters in my novel. Part of me wants to fill a fourth character out a bit more (details create a sense of reality), but another part of me issues a warning: less is more; don’t dilute the main story line – keep things taut. Sometimes these decisions are hard!

  5. Number 4 is a huge reason for the major rebuild required for one of my WIPs. Because I couldn’t get the relationship right between 2 of the main characters, one was cut. And he had POV status. Yes, it’s a major story rebuild because the story could not remain the same!

    • It’s so hard to cut a character you’ve grown to really love. But that’s a sign of growth as a writer, too — and maybe you can use elements of the character you cut in your next piece. :-)

  6. Awesome tips on characterization, Christi! :)

  7. Awesome article, Christi! I especially liked #2—choice of detail. This is really important for character dynamics, as you’ve mentioned. Part of what made the Harry Potter trio so appealing was due to their contrasts: Harry’s lack of a family, Ron’s sibling surplus, Hermoine’s controlled intelligence, and Ron’s impulsive shoot-my-mouth-off quality…

  8. These are great character elements, Christi; and I especially like #4. Just came across character building today in my work, and your intertwining rule is foolproof. Thank you.

    • Character building is such a fun process; I love figuring out how everything will fit together (although sometimes it definitely gets challenging).

  9. Good post. Characters make the story in my opinion, and I struggle to make mine real. I’m bookmarking this one. By the way, thank you for visiting and liking pendrifter. d:)

    • It’s always a struggle to make characters vibrant and well-rounded, but that’s part of the fun. Also, happy to visit pendrifter! And I love the chess set photo you have up top of your blog — did you take that yourself?

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • Hi Christi! The chess set photo is one of the template header choices–it’s there temporarily; I do have a great photo I want to replace it with but I don’t have a way to reduce the photo’s size. d:( Anyway, thanks; I like the chess set too.

  10. Terrific points Christi! I would say having motives and ulterior motives helps breathe life into characters too. :)

  11. This is a great post, Christi. You give good advice. :D

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