One tip for writers I read recently was as follows: the best stories are made of simple plots about complex characters. This is a nice maxim, but somewhat difficult to implement. What makes a complex character? Well, many things. But here are three tips to get you started:
- Complex motivations.
Just like real people aren’t driven toward a single goal with a single purpose, but instead have multiple purposes that lead them to make sometimes seemingly irrational choices, good complex characters have motivations that pull them in different directions. Alaric, for instance, hero of The Quest of the Unaligned, has a strong sense of duty, coupled with a drive for personal success. He also, however, tends to shrug off risks when he alone bears the consequences, or when he thinks that he can handle whatever may face him. These different motivations pull Alaric in opposite directions when a threatening situation arises, depending on who else is involved in the situation, what he believes his duty to be, and how dangerous the threat appears. As opposed to a robot or a Black-Robed-Evil-Mastermind who will always act in the same way, Alaric will judge the situation and act how he thinks best.
- Complex worries, fears, and weaknesses.
Similar to the above, good characters won’t have just a single weakness or fear that keeps them from achieving their goals. While one weakness may be the point of the story – the one that they eventually overcome – overcoming it should not turn the character into a perfect individual. The other main character of The Quest of the Unaligned, Laeshana, has a number of fears that she attempts to keep from controlling her. They aren’t all spelled out for readers, but they shape the way she reacts to situations. First, she hates being looked down upon for her background, and tends to react heatedly to insults by Cadaeren’s nobles. More personally, she is afraid of losing Alaric, and is thus especially bothered by his stubborn refusal to learn things that could save his life. She also worries about the future of her country, while feeling frustrated that she is in many ways powerless to change anything.
- Complex interests and personality traits.
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, one powerful way of giving characters depth is to give them a hobby or other trait that is “irrelevant” to the story. Maybe your juggler loves insects and collects interesting specimens in each town the circus visits. Maybe a thief took a few years of music lessons in his/her childhood and still plays. Maybe a banker spends every Saturday afternoon hiking with his brother and enjoying nature. As real people, we have a multitude of roles we play and facets to our lives; to reflect reality and give a rich story experience to readers, authors therefore must represent our characters as real people to our audiences.
What are some of your favorite “real” characters from a book? What about them made them feel alive to you?