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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?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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?
- Libba Bray’s Gorgeous Characterization
- Nathan Bransford: Character and Plot: Inseparable!
- Mary Kole: Impartial Observers (On Involving Your Characters)
- Behler Blog: Mary Sue and Marty Stu, Meet Ken and Barbie