We all want to create characters that are so well developed that they seem real to the reader. Complex characterisation not only makes the character believable, or realistic, it shows them as they should be – fallible, flawed and anything but a hero.
Complex characterisation isn’t just about knowing what they look like, sound like, how old they are, how they dress or what their favourite colour is. Complexity within characters starts with the background. Every character has a backstory and a past. It’s these details that help the reader identify with that character. We’ve all done stupid things. We’ve all felt pain. We’ve all endured hard times and amazing moments. We all have inner demons. We’ve all accomplished things. These things define us, and so we understand when we see a fictional character going through the same moments and emotions. That’s how we connect with the characters; we feel for them and we empathise, because we’ve been through similar events. We can relate.
Writers then use this backstory and weave it into the present story, thereby ‘layering’ the character. Different layers add different depths and dimension to the character. Remember that the past defines who your character is, but the present story will define who your character will become, because a character must always develop and change during the story, otherwise there won’t be much story to tell.
Character development is continual throughout the story – what he or she experiences will directly affect actions and reactions. So page by page, these layers build up, and your character becomes more complex, and almost real.
It’s important to mention one of the most important aspects of complex character building – emotion. It’s the one thing we all identify with. Emotions make a character. Conflicts build the character. Strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and humanity. These are the ingredients that create character’s complexity. People in real life who are complex can be very intense; they can be highly strung, prone to emotional outbursts, they can be exceptionally creative, intelligent, and above all, they can be very conflicting (and frustrating).
So, are your main characters conflicted, emotional, intense or even unpredictable and difficult? Do they have flaws and weaknesses? How do they react and cope with stress, dilemmas and seemingly impossible problems? How bad are their inner demons? How does it affect their emotional attachments to others? What conflicts are going on in their heads? What really drives them?
In a bid to create complex characters, writers often fall into the trap of creating obvious character types such as the loner, the muscle-bound hero, the optimist, the romantic, or the damsel in distress. By doing so, any chance of creating a complex character that lifts the story from the page is thrown out of the window.
Avoid obvious character types. There is no such thing as ‘character types’. That’s because every character is unique. If something is unique, then ‘type’ cannot exist. Each character must be as distinctive as real people and as unique as a fingerprint.
You’ll notice that there are lots of things mentioned here – emotions, flaws, contradictions, conflicts, backstory/the past, actions and reactions...these are the multitude of facets that made a multifaceted character. Something that is complex means it has numerous parts. The more parts it has, the more complex it becomes.
To build a complex character means you have to understand all these working ‘parts’, and why they exist. For every characteristic we all possess, there is a reason behind it. It may have developed in childhood, or it could be because of something in the present. Everything we have done, and continue to do, shape us. We are constantly evolving; shedding and gaining those layers; nothing is constant.
Your main characters are no different. And it’s these very things that define simplicity from complexity.
Next week: Dealing with emotion.