Friday, October 27, 2017

5 Tips for Creating Complex Characters

Do you want to know why I love Batman so much?

Bummer. I'm not going to talk about that today.

I'm just going to talk about one of the many contributing reasons for my love of Batman. That one contributing reason is his complexity.

Complex characters are some of my favorite types. They are rich, layered, and contradictory in all the best ways.

Oddly enough, complex characters can give writers a difficult time, possibly because they require a lot of thought, possibly because their personalities come with a lot of moving parts, or possibly because writers are scared that complexity will translate to hypocritical and unlikable.

That's what this post is for: To clear up any issues you may be having with your complex characters and give you tools to move forward and create something that is a Batman-level of awesome.
5 Tips for Writing Complex Characters
1. Give them contradictions. No, contradictions in character doesn't necessarily mean annoying or hypocritical or bad. Everybody has contradictory ideas and acts in contradictory ways. It's human nature. By infusing this element of human nature into your character, you are making him/her more realistic and interesting.
  • Joyce Byers from Stranger Things is an excellent example of an amazing contradictory character. She loves her sons and wants what's best for them. However, there are times when she is very hard on Jonathan for not picking up the slack that she has created in their home life. And she buys tickets for Will and her to see Poltergeist even thought it will probably scare him because she wants to bond with him. These actions contradict her love for her sons, but multiple scenes throughout Stranger Things shows that there is nothing she will not do to protect her boys. While her actions are unlikable at moments because of her contradictions, overall it gives her a human, realistic side that makes her triumphs all the more precious. 
In giving your characters contradictions, you make them more human, more complex, more relatable, and, ultimately, you give your readers more to think about and cheer for.

2. Don't be afraid to give them unlikable qualities. Many writers shy away from contradictions and inner flaws because they don't want to make their character unlikable. Don't worry about this. Unlikableness (Spell Check says that's not a word, which only makes me want to leave it in) gives your character something to overcome, which is not only a good basis for a character arc, but also encouraging for readers. Win win.
  • Prince Arthur from Merlin is a good example of this. Clearly, the guy has issues. Sure, he has a lot of good qualities, but he can also be entitled, insensitive, and rude. However, these flaws are all ones we see him wrestle with throughout the series. And they are also evened out by his good heart and innate desire to do right. He has unlikable qualities, but they add to his character rather than detracting from it. 
If a TV series can do it, so can you. Don't be afraid to give your characters some flaws. 

3. Don't forget about subtext. What do I mean by subtext? I mean don't forget to give your character underlying themes, motives, and beliefs. What emotions guide your character that may not be explicitly stated? What are some beliefs that he holds that shift subtly throughout the story? None of these need to be actually explained in detail, just alluded to. 
  • Ron Weasley from Harry Potter is a character steeped in subtext. He's always been overshadowed by his brothers, thus creating rarely-explicitly-stated conflict between himself and Harry. Being poor has given him issues of self-esteem, which shows itself in his tendencies towards deprecating others and needing to prove himself. But he also comes from a large family with loving parents, which is one of the reasons he ultimately sticks by the orphaned Harry no matter what. 
Subtext isn't just important for dialogue, so make it a point to give subtext to the personalities and actions of your complex characters.

4. Be intentional with their background. Their background should feed into who they are today: Why they are flawed, contradictory, and full of underlying motives. However, remembering the importance of subtext, recognize that you don't have to be detailed about the background. Some characters may benefit from having little to no background revealed about them, while others need their information rolled out at very specific points in the story. Think carefully about your character's history and decide how and when you want to dole out their background information.
  • Nell from The Haunting shows the perfect balance of background information flow. She has a history of supernatural events in her life which is important because it means that the haunted house she is staying in has a connection to her. This we are told right off the bat. However, we don't find out until later that these supernatural events have scarred her and left her less mentally stable than most. We also don't know until later that she's carrying around a lot of guilt related to her mother's death, which also makes her more susceptible to the haunted house. All of this information gives her layer after layer after layer, none of which are revealed immediately in the story. 
Ask yourself: What parts of my character's backstory are important to who they are? Do my readers need to know this? If so, when can I give this information in a way that creates layers rather than information dumps? 

5. Remember that contrasting and paralleling is important. Parallel your complex character with somebody who is similar to them, though different in very stark ways. Or contrast with characters who are completely, entirely different. Or parallel/contrast with surroundings. Or all three. This makes their complexities into even more of a statement, giving them an extra interest point. 
  • Batman from the Dark Knight trilogy is a favorite example of mine (surprise. He's pretty much my favorite example for everything). His thirst for justice is parallel with Raz Al Ghul's, but contrasts because he isn't as heartless or depraved as the leader of the League of Assassins. This showcases his complexities in that he seeks vigilante justice, but also draws a line with how he goes about securing this justice...even if it is sometimes a thin one. This same parallel is drawn between his personality and that of Gotham city itself (they are both dark and disturbed entities, but Batman has morals and works to do good). A contrast is brought to light by his interactions with Alfred, who is far more grounded than Bruce and selfless on a more personal level, making us wonder about Bruce's choices and motives. 
Contrasts can highlight the epic complexities that you have built into your character, so if you're proud of what you've created and want to show it off, this is the way to go. 

And that's all I have for you. Why are you still here? Oh. Do you have something to say? Leave a comment below and tell me about your favorite complex characters....or tips you have for writing this character type!

Have writing or reading questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah in the comment section below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

Related articles: 
Unreliable Narrators: What They Are and How to Write Them
Writing a Compelling Hero: 7 Tips With Examples

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  1. This was a great read! I loved the section on subtext... a good reminder going into NaNoWriMo.

    I love complex characters, but I'm a weirdo and usually end up rooting for the ones with almost zero redeeming qualities? I often forget that my heroes and heroines need to be likable. Kind of a problem when you write Middle Grade!

    1. Haha! Yeah, I also enjoy characters that are super flawed. All I need is a few redeeming qualities and I'll root for them. I like seeing them overcome their issues. Maybe that's why we like those character types?

      Yes, MG does call for more likable characters for the most part. =D Best of luck on NaNoWriMo! You'll do great.

  2. This is so helpful, Hannah!
    I love complex characters, and Batman is one of the top--um--five?! There are so many good ones it's hard to rank them!
    I like Batman's friend, James Gordon also, he's complex for sure.

    Speaking of Batman, which is the best kind of conversation, have you ever seen the music videos by Shane Blair? If not you must look them up right now! You'll enjoy them very much! I listen to them all the time, haha. They are clean, and he does the editing, music and vocals and he wrote the lyrics. Anyway, the songs are called *Professor Shape* *Bruce Wayne* *Darth Vader* and *Gandalf the White* . Very catchy, and it's the entire story of each character done to music. You'll love the Batman one.

    Snape is a great complex character, as well as Loki. Even James Bond, Jason Bourne, Raymond Reddington, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Spock and pretty any character on the Star Trek TV series. Bilbo Baggins is interesting to me, Mr. Darcy, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler...gracious there are so many!

    Anyway, thanks for this post! It's sooooo good and helpful.

    Have a great day!
    Sincerely, Emilie

    1. YES! Jim Gordon is also very complex and excellent. Love that character!

      I've never heard Shane Blair music videos. I'm listening to the Snape one as I type and I'm really enjoying it. So cool! He's very clever. =D Excited to check out the Batman one.

      Thank you for the cool comment and music suggestion, Emilie!

  3. The book I'm working on had to change because I didn't have these elements before. Thanks for the reminder and some new terms!

    1. So happy to be of help, Marie! I bet your book is going to be amazing.

  4. Awesome post, as always Hannah. Really inspiring for me to get writing and make my characters as flawed as they can be (without the reader hating them, of course). =)

    1. Yay! Write all the flawed characters. =D I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, Jacob.

  5. This is great!
    I think learning psychological fact will do, actually learning the M.B.t.I helped me to understand the hidden and contradiction trait of my characters and in the real life too, i'd like to know your MBTI type i'm INFJ


    1. *gasps* A fellow INFJ! I'm INFJ, too. =D MBTI is super helpful for both writing and real-life. My personality made so much more sense after taking the MBTI test. =D

    2. You actually made my day!

    3. =D i sensed an INfJ vibe between your lines!
      i think most of INFJs went through some level of insanity (at some point) . Sometimes i wonder if looking at things from different prospective would makes people think that we're psychos
      it's really frustrating to explain this complexity but you pointed it out pretty good .

    4. heeeeelllllllllooooo

  6. Hannah, have you ever thought of compiling some of your most popular blog posts into a book? I'm telling you it would sell like mad. Sarcasm, nerd references, and writing advice. What more could anyone want out of nonfiction?

  7. I love complex characters, but I also love showing their complexity with the outcome of their actions. I usually write Deep POV. Anyway, what person outright tells themselves what their contradictions are or what makes them a deep person is? Even if we are shallow, we experience ourselves in ways that seem complex to us and we don't always realize it. Just how it works. It's the idea that sometimes other people know us better than we know know, looking at something from the outside in. I love demonstrating a character's complexity from this POV. In my current novel I have a main character who spends a lot of time indignantly responding to things with factious jokes. People around him seemingly do not understand that he is joking and respond as though he is serious. Is he really joking? Is he serious? If he is joking why does no one seem to get it? Maybe he is just unaware of how he is projecting himself and he is actually attempting to be know, maybe there's a disconnect between what he thinks he's doing and what he actually is. The complexity is his unawareness that his actions are causing what he is experiencing to happen. It's a case of 'it's not them it's me' and he hasn't figured that out yet.

    Complexity isn't just having a character with conflicting beliefs or a conflicting belief/action paradigm (although that is part of it). The complexity should include how the character relates to the world and how the world relates in response to that and that and sometimes it doesn't go as intended....and how the character reacts to that. Not everything in the real world goes our way and how we react to it is a part of our character (who we are).

    Also, the verify you are not a robot process on this site is ridiculous! It goes through 10 different steps, each with multiple steps. Click the images the new images...then do it again...10 times!


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