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.  
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41 thoughts on “Writing a complex character

  1. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

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