Create Complex Characters

This is the first in a series of posts on creating complex characters.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft, says that “your fiction can be only as successful as the characters who move it and move within it . . . . we must find them interesting, we must find them believable, and we must care about what happens to them.”

A complex character exhibits conflict and contradiction. Burroway says, “Conflict is at the core of character, as it is of plot.” A complex character’s conflict will be not only with the world or with other characters. A complex character is in conflict with herself. This is where contradiction comes in. Each of us at times exhibits a particular human characteristic, and at other times exhibit its polar opposite. As Burroway puts it, “All of us are gentle, violent; logical, schmaltzy; tough, squeamish; lusty, prudish; sloppy, meticulous; energetic, apathetic; manic, depressive.”

One of the most common recommendations given to writers about creating well-developed characters is to build a character bio sheet, listing physical, emotional, intellectual characteristics, preferences, dislikes, habits, and so forth. The idea is to build up a reserve of details from which you can draw as you write the character into the narrative. Such a list helps you understand your character’s motivation and gives you the concrete particulars that help you dramatize a scene.

I would suggest that any character bio sheet should include a consideration of contradictory tendencies the character might exhibit. Choose three contradictory tendencies and make lists of specific ways in which these contradictions are exhibited. For example, if we take Burroway’s first example from above—gentle, violent—it might look like this:

Our character, Larry, is a fifty-year-old man, balding, thin, brown eyes, with calloused workman’s hands. I’ll keep the lists short for the sake of space.

Gentle Larry                                                               Violent Larry

Combs granddaughter’s hair                             Pounds fist on vending machines

Cuddles with the cat                                               Kicks the cat off the porch

Holds wife’s hand before sleep                         Aggressive toward co-workers

Works in flowerbed                                                 Yells at other drivers on the road

A middle-aged working man who combs his granddaughter’s hair is a lovable character. That the same character pounds on the vending machine and kicks the cat off the porch is a bit disturbing. But it is also very human. We are all clusters of contradictory desires and motivations. We may all admire the gentle Larry, but we will identify with, more deeply sympathize with, the complex Larry who does all these things.

Making these “contradiction lists” serves a practical purpose for your narrative. It helps you to show, and not tell, the complex nature of your character. You may not use everything in your lists, but your understanding of the contradictions inherent in the character make her more complex and more interesting.

Published by Gary Guinn

Retired English professor. Dog lover. Craft beer lover. Occasional writer.

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