Complex Characters: How do You Go About Creating Them? And How Complex is Too Complex?

I’ve been trying to write a new short story lately. I have a great title for it, but the story just isn’t coming. I know what I want to say with it, but therein the problem lies: the complexity of real life is incredibly difficult to achieve in fiction, especially short fiction. Life is so screwed up that if you actually try to create something real to life in literature it seems convoluted, contrived, and simply fake.

I suppose what I’m running into is the creation of multiple, flawed characters whose flaws are first and foremost not readily apparent, but which come into direct conflict.

Actually, when I put it like that it seems very easy. Here’s the quirk: the flaw is actually associated with a specific event. Either it’s amplified by the event (very likely), or it appears as a result of the event (unlikely) or it is embodied by some issue unrelated to the event, but which when the event occurs takes a different form of expression (which most mirrors real-life psychology).

So here’s a question for all the fiction authors out there: how do you handle this sort of interaction? How do you create characters with flaws which fall into the four standard categories [(a) flaws you know that no one knows, (b) flaws you know that everybody knows, (c) flaws others know that you don’t know, and (d) flaws that you don’t know that nobody knows]?

I’m going to venture a guess here and say that the answer to this depends on whether the persons are supposed to be protagonists, antagonists, or on opposite sides of the spectrum. In popular culture, the “bad” guys are usually those whose flaws have overtaken them, or do bad things due to their flaw, whereas the “good” guys are usually those whose flaws have been overcome. This can usually be seen in the way villains are humanized. (A perfect example of this is “Mr. Glass” in Unbreakable, where the audience is drawn in to pity the guy, believing that he’s turned all his misfortunes into positives (owning an art gallery) only to find out that they instead led him to be a monster in search for proof of his hypothesis.)

But what happens when there is no clear protagonist or antagonist in the story, where you know the character you’re cheering for is in at best an ambiguous “right”, and the character you’re not cheering for is in at best an ambiguous “wrong”? What happens then (other than a really good, heated book club discussion)? There are those stories in which the person who you’re cheering for the entire time turns out to be the bad guy. These stories are usually enjoyed better during the second reading when you as the reader realize that the author was pulling you in a certain direction all along in order to dash your hopes. Reminds me of the Futurama episode where Tinny Tim tells Bender, in his pathetically optimistic tone, “You raised my hopes and dashed them quite expertly. Bravo, sir!”

I’ll be thinking about this for a while while I put together a few short stories for which I’m currently scribbling ideas.

9 thoughts on “Complex Characters: How do You Go About Creating Them? And How Complex is Too Complex?

  1. Maybe to create characters like this, it’s always best to fall back to ordinary people dealing with normal problems in their lives. The thing about complex characters is that they tend to overcomplicate matters.

    For instance, a character that feels uneasy that she feels no guilt or remorse when she kills people. Or a character that fails to trust anyone in their life because they have been betrayed before. A character that masks their insecurity with rage or even seduction because they have been abused before.

    These kinds of things you can find them true to life and you’re right in that the way you portray these characters depends on the way your plot unfolds.

    The problem happens when you expand these characters, the complexity of the real world is tricky to swallow when you’re reading it in a book. Readers tend to look back on and answer the conflicts with “If I were this character…” rather than “I wonder what this character would do?”

    I think in times like this Noir or Neo-Noir Detective Fiction gives some of the best inspirations for complex characters. A lot of them portray characters of deep complexity. Maybe you can also draw inspiration from there.

  2. @Edrei: Good points.

    To exand on the “If I were this character/I wonder what this character would do” line of thought: I guess what I’ve found is that if you add certain “normalities” to the character then the reader will fill in whatever’s not explicitly stated, and therefore make the character both simple and complex enough to “come to life”. I heard Michael Stackpole (I think) talk about this once, and he stated that if you just create a character 80% of the way the reader will usually fill in the last 20%.

    My biggest issue with with creating multi-layered characters. I’ve been reading a lot of Gene Wolfe lately and have completely fallen in love with the depth of all his characters, so what I’d like to know is how to create fantasy characters so complete they feel real. (Specifically, I’m reading the Book of the New Sun and am finding more and more the characters of Dr Talos and Baldanders, their relationship, and their individual struggles.) Part of it, for me, is the language used: I’ve noticed that if the narration is similar to the spoken text then the world becomes more real to the reader. (That’s the problem with a lot of fantasy today: the narration is in our modern language and usage, but the spoken text is in some strange quasi-medieval meter.) This style can also serve to get the reader thinking about what a character would do instead of what they would do if they were the character.

    Can you recommend any Noir detective fiction?

  3. Well, I have a penchant for Hardboiled Noir so the classic would be Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep, Long Goodbye, High Window and Farewell, My Lovely. Thing is, a lot of these stories can be a little repetitive, but I have a thing with the original Femme Fatale (which is a complex character on its own) so I don’t mind.

    I haven’t read any Neo-Noir lately so I can’t really recommend you any. The best I can suggest for the kind of depth and complexity of characters is Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series. The first few books have the first person neo-noir perspective. Later books degrade into senseless softporn though but it’s an ongoing series so I just kept reading them anwyay.

    I would have thought all stories should leave some room to the reader to fill in. Just that stories that use complex characters shouldn’t have complex plots. It’ll be too confusing to the reader. it should be a simple situation which the character brings to life with their actions. That way, it’s more believable I would think to the reader.

  4. While reading this I couldnt help but think one thought. What if the most complex character is the most clean straight forward single layered character we can concieve.

    It would drive me mad to read about a villain that is just inherently evil. No childhood abuse or neglect, no character flaw that got them shunned by society. Something that just seemed destined for evil.

    How could something be so straight forward? How can something be so.

    Then again its probably been done.

    Geeze i need to get back into the writing gig.

  5. It would drive me mad to read about a villain that is just inherently evil. No childhood abuse or neglect, no character flaw that got them shunned by society. Something that just seemed destined for evil.

    Yeah, been done. Think of all the comic book bad guys of the 1950’s. Of course, that’s not to say it couldn’t be re-done in a manner that works. Just look at The Good Son or Damien.

  6. Well i mean a lot of those guys came from like…evilish parents. I was more along the lines of someone who had every incentive and right to turn out the good guy, and for no explicable reason, ended up being the next dr. doom.

  7. Don’t overthink your characters.

    My best advice is, as Edrei said, to not ask yourself “What would I do if I were this character” – that turns the character into you.

    What may help with the character is to write a few scenes with the character in some situations he or she is likely to be in. For example, if your character is Picard’s Dixon Hill from Star Trek:TNG, you can write a scene where he gets a bit confused by what’s normal for the 1920s but different in the 24th century. By writing the scenes, you also get to dry-run your characters, and see if you really like them.

  8. @Junior: So… you want a villain who’s evil for no reason and can beat Galactus with, like, soap and a hairbrush. Gotcha. (Galatctus: “I’m’a eat yo planet.” Dr. Doom: “You don’t want to eat my planet.” Galactus: “I don’t want to eat your planet…”)

    @Quantum: That’s true when it comes to the initial creation of character, but I believe it becomes a bit more complex when you’re looking at the growth component, if there is any, and (what’s more important to me) the way the narrator’s and reader’s perception of the character. I suppose much of what I’m dealing with here has to do less with a character and more with the idea of the unreliable narrator (since, by definition, all narrators SHOULD be unreliable, to a certain extent).

    I had started to think about using the characters in utterly different contexts, like you mention, and think I’ll try that with a few of the characters I’m working on now. I’ll keep you abreast on how that goes (maybe by sending you a few short stories for your entertainment, stuff you can read in your copious amounts of spare time, what with the PhD and getting married and all).

    Maybe I’ll use the Stephen King method and simply create a person through blitzkrieg characterization then not figure out what the character WILL do until they actually do it. Heck, if I can keep myself from knowing what’s going to happen, I doubt the reader’ll be able to guess at it.

    Then again, maybe not.

    I think I’ll stick to interviewing my characters so I get to know then, then crafting multiple plots to increase orchestrated complexity.

  9. Well how about apocalypse from X-men.
    Super strong, super evil, and no one can figure out why. Its just an evil all powerful being whose only concern is distruction and we dont know why

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