• Madison Siwak

How to Write Complex Characters.

by Angelina Havaris

Writing characters isn’t easy. Perhaps you already know what your characters’ personalities, desires, fears, misbeliefs, and emotional wounds are, but still feel as though they are lacking in complexity. While this is not a comprehensive list, here are some tips that I’ve found to be helpful for making characters complex.

Give your characters selfish goals, don’t just give them noble goals.

To some degree, we’re all motivated by self-interest. Characters are no exception to this. If a character has a noble goal ex. saving their homeland from being destroyed, consider possible selfish or self-interested motives a character may have that are operating within their noble goal. Perhaps deep down they want to save their homeland out of a desire to be recognized. This creates an interesting internal conflict as their external noble goal clashes with their internal, self-interested goal.

Give your characters a contradiction.

As humans, we are full of contradictions. Characters are no different. For instance, your character might be introverted — someone who gets their energy from being alone —

but enjoys meeting new people. There may also be specific situations where characters behave in a way that’s contradictory to their morals. For example, a character who values being honest lies to their family about their college major because of the backlash they would face. Contradictions don’t make characters hypocrites; they’re what makes them human.

Small details speak volumes.

One way to convey who characters are is through subtle gestures and actions. For example, say your character doesn’t openly express their emotions, but chops vegetables for dinner because their significant other had a long day at work. While not outright stated, this minor detail reveals that the character is thoughtful and caring. Another way to convey character is through the details in one’s room. In a scenario where Character A sees Character B’s room for the first time, consider which details Character A notices. If they see a scrapbook open containing tickets to concerts and events, this suggests that Character B is sentimental. If the room contains hardly any decorations, this could imply they’re a minimalist. It’s the small details that make up the bigger picture of who your characters are.

Some additional tips:

  • Ask yourself why a character thinks, says, does, or believes what they do. By reflecting on the why behind a character’s actions, you’ll develop their worldview and belief system organically. Say that your character is an assassin. Why are they an assassin? How do they really feel about their occupation? Why?

  • Use relationship dynamics to reveal character. Characters display different sides of themselves depending on who they are interacting with. Consider two of your characters who’ve had little to no interactions with each other. If you threw them in a scene together, what would their interaction look like? Do we glimpse sides of both respective characters that we wouldn’t have seen if the pairing had been different?

  • Humanize them. Show us they are deeply flawed, don’t just write what their flaw is and how it gets in the way of them accomplishing their goal. Recognize that they get hungry, tired, and bored. Show us what or who they love and what the loss of this love would do to them. Let them experience the full range of human emotions, including negative ones such as guilt, jealousy, and hatred. After all, it’s these things that make us human.

  • Never underestimate the power of subtext. Most of us never say what we’re truly thinking or feeling. If characters were to be completely honest in expressing their thoughts and feelings, it wouldn’t be true to life. Subtext reveals what a character is not saying. If your character gets rejected by their crush and states that they’re okay even though the disheartened look on their face suggests otherwise, we understand right away how they really feel about the rejection.

  • Do a thorough character analysis of some of your favourite characters. Whether it be books, movies, tv, or video games, dissect what makes these characters so interesting and apply this technique when working with your own. Do they possess any contradictions? What is their internal conflict? Is there a unique attribute that makes them stand out amongst familiar tropes and character archetypes? Is there a specific moment where you felt immediate empathy towards that character? Which one, and why? What do they desire and is it something you rooted for? Why or why not? If it’s not, what made you want to root for this character?

In short, the best way to add complexity to your characters is to remember that they are complicated, messy, and utterly human.

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