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Creating Complex Characters

One of the common complaints authors hear is that their characters are “one-dimensional” or simply “dull.”  This is usually the result of falling back on simplistic character archetypes:  the stalwart hero, the “spunky” heroine (not that I run into that much in my neck of the woods), the witty serial killer, the parent who appears to hate his or her kid but turns out to be loving and supportive, etc.  The list goes on and on and can be found nearly anywhere you look.  The reason these characters are dull is not simply because they’re overdone.  They also have no depth.

So the author responds by mixing things up and coming up with “realistic” characters — a hero who loves dogs, but hates cats, likes his brother’s kids, but otherwise can’t stand children, because he was once tormented by the neighborhood children when he was boy and they locked him in an abandoned shed for three days, until the police found him and put him in a jail cell with a drunk guy who made a pass at him (so now he can’t deal with sexual issues) and then his mother died in a car accident when he was twelve, so he has abandonment issues and….

And he’s a complete mess.  He’s become so complicated that few readers will care to sort out all of his past traumas and what his motivations are.  And if we can’t make some kind of sense out of a character, we won’t fall in love (or hate) with him.

Fiction is not real life.  Real life is complicated and real people are confusing.  This is why ten different biographers can paint ten different pictures of the same person.  But even “complicated” fictional characters are really fairly simple, when you look at them closely.  Conrad Jarrett, in one of my favorite novels, Ordinary People by Judith Guestis torn between wanting to live again and wanting to kill himself.  But when all is said and done, he really only has these two warring elements in his psyche.  And even when the Deep Dark Secret of his suicidal tendencies is revealed, it turns out to be (*SPOILER ALERT*) because he fought to live, when his brother did not, and he can’t handle the guilt.  In other words, it’s because those same two aspects of his psyche came into conflict in the past and now he’s dealing with the consequences.

So it’s a mistake to overly complicate a character.  Although minor details do help to flesh out a character and make him interesting, it’s best to start out with one primary motivation for the character — the reason he is trying to achieve something in the novel.  Here are some examples from my own work:

  • In The Christmas Wager, Andrew is in love with his friend, Thomas, and wants to be with him, even if it means he must keep his love a secret forever.
  • In The Meaning of Vengeance, Geirr wants to accept Ari’s offer of peace and stay with him on his cozy farmstead.
  • In Seiðman (accepted for publication, but not yet released), Kol wants to remain with his childhood friend, Thorbrand, especially as their friendship begins to blossom into a romantic relationship.

You’ll note that all of these primary motivations are romantic, because they are, when all is said and done, romance novels.  Obviously, that wouldn’t be the case for a novel that wasn’t, at its core, a romance.

So, I could easily have constructed plots around these characters which consisted of nothing but external obstacles thrown at them to delay them on their way to their goals.  The first story takes place in Victorian England and the other two are based in Viking Age Iceland and Scandinavia, so the cultures would provide ample opportunities for this.  But it wouldn’t have made the characters interesting.  To do that, I had to give them secondary motivations that were at odds with the primary motivations:

  • Andrew, being a Victorian gentleman, believes that his desires are perverse and, when Thomas begins to respond romantically to him — something that should make Andrew deliriously happy — he is horrified that his base nature is somehow corrupting the man he loves.  This leads him to push Thomas away, while simultaneously longing to accept Thomas’s advances.
  • Geirr’s brother has been killed by Ari, as a result of the feud that has destroyed both of their families.  He is duty-bound to seek vengeance against Ari, or he will not only shame the memory of his family, but himself.
  • Kol has been called by the gods at a very young age to fulfill his destiny and he knows that he can never do this, so long as he remains in Thorbrand’s shadow.

It’s the internal conflict that gives the characters depth and makes the characters interesting and memorable.  But whereas it might seem that adding a third conflicting motivation would enhance this and make the characters even more interesting, the net result is usually confusion.  The reader may think the character is behaving randomly, without any motivation at all, or against his own character.

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