Creating Complex Characters

12:10 PM

Happy Tuesday, everyone! After last week's lack of a writing post, here we are again, and this month I'm going to be doing something new. I'm doing a four-post series this December, on the four important aspects of a good, complex story, and I'm very excited about it.

Today, I'm going to talk about Complex Characters. 

I don't know about you, but characters are my favorite part of reading and writing, and in my opinion the most important, so we're starting with them. Where would you be in a complex story without complex characters? You know what I'm talking about; the characters so vibrant, so emotional, so alive that they're popping right off the page and you're almost living the story with them. I'm by no means an expert in this, but I've put together a list of traits of complex characters, and I'll share some of those with you today. (note: this can apply to all characters. MCs, side characters, villains, you name it.)
Not really. But I do have a fun list.

Complex Characters Have Backstory. It doesn't have to be a traumatizing one, by any means. You don't have to have their entire previous life from childhood planned out (although the more complex a backstory you have planned out, the easier it will be to figure out their motives in the present). But just like your past shapes you, gives you fears and hopes and motivations to do the things you do and make the decisions you make, characters rely on that even more. Even if most of that backstory doesn't make it into the actual story (and it shouldn't, lest you fall prey to the dread info-dump), you'll know it, and trust me, I speak from personal experience when I say that this is a huge help when trying to figure out your character. Their backstory will define their habits now, their self-esteem and confidence, the things they're afraid of (who hasn't been traumatized by some childhood event that scarred you for life whether you're fully aware of it or not?), the kinds of people they like and the kinds of people they avoid, the choices they make and the things they try to avoid now, and so on.

Example: David from Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. As a child, David witnessed his father being killed by an Epic named Steelheart(a man with superpowers), after that father accidentally wounded
the supposedly invincible Epic. Now, as a young adult, David has devoted his life to killing Steelheart. We're not constantly reminded of his backstory, and killing Steelheart isn't always the task at hand in the story, but it influences everything David does.

Complex Characters Have Strong Relationships. This doesn't at all apply mostly to some kind of love interest. Unless your character lives alone on a deserted island, they're most likely going to have some kind of relationship, past or present, with someone. Family, friends, enemies, acquaintances, just the kinds of relationships that people have in real life. These relationships can be positive, negative, or sometimes even both, but each one of them is going to be slightly different. A good, alive, complex character should have different motives and ways of acting and speaking with each different relationship, even if it's subtle. After all, you're not going to speak to your estranged brother the way you speak to your girlfriend/boyfriend, are you? You don't act the same way around a scary villain and your mother. It can be, and should be subtle, but every relationship is different, and if you have complex characters it's definitely worth exploring some of their relationships with other characters, and considering how they interact with each and what some of the influential factors might be there.

I couldn't find a good GIF for this one. So here you go.

Complex Characters Are Relatable. And yes, this applies to villains, too. I'm going to take a chance and guess that the characters we're the most emotionally attached to are the ones we can relate to. This in itself is a whole different blog post, so I'll just touch on it briefly. It doesn't have to be big. You don't have to be able to relate to the character big-time, in some huge way. In most cases, you don't want to. As usual, it's all the little, subtle things. And most complex characters have one detail, one strong, vivid part of themselves that we can connect to, relate to, and feel for, right? The key is finding one small thing inside them that readers can hook on to and connect with easily. Maybe your anti-hero has a sibling they care for more than anything, or a parent, or a friend. Maybe your disgusting evil villain does what he does because he feels left out, and who hasn't felt that way? It's all in the details.

Example: Not Loki, because I'm tired of seeing that one. Katniss from The Hunger Games. No  one reading that book has been stuck in an arena and forced to fight to the death with a bunch of other teenagers. We don't have that perspective. But how many of us have a sibling we would do anything for? A lot more of us. We can connect with Katniss's love for her sister and understand that feeling of being willing to do anything for them, and that makes our experience with Katniss that much more emotional.

Complex Characters Believe In Something. Everyone believes in something. Religion, a personal philosophy, a parent or someone to look up to, a dream. It's almost impossible not to have something you believe in, and it makes up a huge part of who you are. This is one of the crucial ones. What does your character believe in and lean on? Where do they turn when they really need to? God, or science, or a parent? And, on an interesting note, what happens when you take that thing away from them for a little while, and get them to lose their faith in it? You can play around with this, but personal beliefs are a huge part of character development.

Example: Enjolras, from Les Miserables. Enjolras (who happens to be one of my favorite characters of all time) believes in freedom, in the revolution. Everything in his life orbits around this one belief. He throws his entire self into this conviction, and in the end is fully willing to die for it, and his passion and belief in this makes him an incredibly emotional, strong character.

Complex Characters Have Conflicting Interests. This one is small, but fun to play around with. Say your character, whoever they are, wants to achieve *said goal here* really, really badly, but *personal conviction, religion, etc.* gets in the way. Or, the villain needs to be killed in order to stop them, but killing goes against the MC's moral code. What do they do? What do they place priority on? You don't always agree with yourself, and sometimes you're conflicted. Realistic characters will be the same way.

Example: Cinder from The Lunar Chronicles. (SPOILERS AHEAD.) Cinder has always been taught to fear and hate the mind-warping Lunars, but when she discovers that she herself is one and possesses that power, it's a constant struggle between knowing she can use that power, and should in some circumstances, and hating herself for it.
I love these books, by the way. You should read them.
And finally,

Complex Characters Have Something That Drives Them. This, to me, is the most important one, and this might even go beyond the plot. Everyone, and every character, has one thing, the thing at their very inner core, that motivates everything they do, and this is definitely something that you want to explore. This could be a person, or a dream, or a goal, but it influences everything they do within the story. It should be at the very heart of everything they do, the deciding factor in everything they do. Their world revolves around it. Now, you don't at all need to make this a major thing, and in fact, it probably shouldn't be, because if it's crucial to them they won't have to think about it or mention it constantly. It's just subtly there, in the background, leading them onward, and you don't need a lot to show that.

Example: David is driven by his desire to see Steelheart bleed again. Katniss is driven by her need to keep her sister safe. Enjolras is driven by his passion for freedom. Cinder is driven by wanting to make something more of herself. Connor from Unwind is driven by his desire to prove that he deserves to live. Locke from LOST is driven by his need to prove that he can do things on his own despite a disability. The list goes on and on and on.

That, of course, isn't all. Complex characters are so much more than those few traits, but I obviously couldn't include everything here. So why don't you tell me. 

What do you think are traits of complex characters? Do you have a favorite complex, well-developed character that I've listed here, or even better, one that I haven't? Comment away.

Also, I need your opinion on something. If I were to add another post a week, with more information about my WIP (Pariah), would you be interested? I could post excerpts, character interviews, etc.
Aimee out. *cue dramatic music*


  1. YESSSS Thank you for this post.
    And absolutely, definitely, no shadow of a doubt, put more Pariah stuff on here.

  2. These are all excellent thoughts—and I agree. The hard part is figuring out if they've actually made it in sufficient understanding onto the page or not... All the same, I think distinguishing whether a character is static or dynamic during the story also helps: you can have a complex character with either, but I also thinking knowing it helps you keep their characterization in line. :)

    But this is an excellent post, and I look forward to more, because I am needing all the help I can get.

    1. Ah, yes, that's the difficult part...I'm still struggling myself with figuring out how to transfer all that deepness onto the page. I don't think I even succeed in doing so the majority of the time. But knowing it all is a start, I guess.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. I'm saving this post for future reference. I'm starting to write a book and this post will help so much. Very insightful. I look forward to more posts from you :)


    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it and got something out of it! Thanks for reading (and best of luck with your book!)


    1. Haha, I can definitely arrange that. xD

  5. This is a really cool post! Lots of good tips. ^ ^ Another character would be Frodo and his drive to save his home. Bryce, one of my main characters from my current WIP, has the goal of finding his younger brother whom he was separated from.

    Stori Tori's Blog


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