All too often I see writers create one-sided characters that come off as unnatural and unbelievable, taking away from an otherwise well-developed plot. Their book is usually filled with bad guys who are wholly evil and good guys who have upstanding moral fiber.
The truth is that the world of fiction is often not so black and white. Just like in the real world, fictional characters should be complex, and they should both be able to grow and vulnerable to their darker nature.
And while many of you do not suffer from writing one-sided characters, all writers of fiction could work on character development because creating complex characters takes conscious effort.
So, how do you create more complex characters? Grab a pen and a sheet of paper, or open a document. The following discussion requires your participation.
Creating More Complex Characters: The Basics
Now that you have your writing tools, get ready to participate in this quick exercise!
Step 1: List out Your Characters
Creat a list of all the major and minor characters in your book. All of them; every single one you can think of. As a side note, if you have over fifteen characters written down, I’d suggest that you remove or combine your least important characters.
Step 2: List their Traits
Next to each character’s name, list their most prominent traits. All characters must have at least one defining trait, but please list as many as you think fit the character.
Goal: For a well-rounded minor character, your goal is to have at least two prominent traits. For the main character(s), your goal is to have at least three to four prominent traits written down.
Step 3: List their Strengths and Weaknesses
Each of your characters should have at least one strength and one weakness—even the minor characters. For some of you, there might be a couple characters that you feel do not need a strength and weakness. However, even if you never touch upon a character’s strengths and weaknesses, these are important to identify because they are the backbone of your characters’ motivations.
Goal: All your minor characters should have one strength and one weakness. Your main character(s) should have at least two strengths and two weaknesses, although one can be dominant over the other.
Step 4: List a Goal
What does each character want? What motivates them? Write at least one goal for each character.
Goal: Your minor characters should all have at least a single goal, and your main character(s) should have one to two goals at minimum.
Step 5: Look Your List over
For many of you, there are going to be holes in this exercise, areas where one character had no clear goals, another who had no strengths and/or weaknesses, and another still who had only one defining trait. These are areas that you should mull over and fill out. Don’t brush it off that because the character is so minor he or she doesn’t need these extra details. These are always helpful exercises for future edits—or even sequels. In addition, coming up with ways to fill these holes often leads to a secondary benefit: tightening your book.
Creating More Complex Characters: The Final Touches
What I just went over will give your characters more depth. However, this won’t necessarily make them more complex. Now that you have a list of your characters, you can identify any one-sided characters you might have. Of their traits, how many are similar? Are they kind, selfless, and funny? These are all too similar. How about cruel, intelligent, and calculating? Again, too similar.
One way to fix this is to add an additional trait or amplify an already existing trait. If you need some inspiration, go to your character’s strengths and weaknesses. If, under character strengths, your character who is kind, selfless, and funny is altruistic, then avoid using a strength—obviously that will produce more of the same behavior. We’re looking for complexity.
If the strengths are too close to your character’s traits, try looking at his or her weakness(es). Maybe your character has trust issues. A trait that comes out of that is being emotionally distant, perhaps even cold, to those that care about him or her. Add that to your kind character, and your altruistic character is immediately more complex—and personally, I already like this character more.
Changing a Personality over Time
Another way to add complexity to your character is to develop and add to a character’s personality over a period of time. For your main character, this happens almost without trying. Someone who comes out of a challenging ordeal is not the same person they were before the events took place. Many times they’ve grown—aka acquired a new strength. They might have also regressed, or developed a new weakness.
However, other minor characters can grow or regress as well. These types of developments make for some interesting twists. Think about a best friend who gives in to one of her weaknesses and betrays the main character. How devastating and unexpected is that? What a plot twist! And best of all, your readers are going to be hooked if you throw something like this at them.
Now try the reverse. Maybe an enemy changes over time—maybe they don’t, but they fake it. These are fun layers that you the writer can play with to add complexity to your characters. Try it—just for fun—and see what you find. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services