Creating Complex Characters

Let me start by saying I love NaNoWriMo. I’ve participated in the main November event for the past -checks notes- 11 years. And 3 of those years I also participated in Camp NaNo. I’m even going to attempt camp again this year, in the hopes I can knock out a few short stories I’ve had on the back burner for a while.

However, as I often do, this month I’ve taken issue with one of the prep articles. I happen to find the “official” method for creating nuanced characters to be one of the least intuitive methods I’ve encountered.

I’m not much of a plotter. Probably, in large part, because I like to get a rough feeling for my characters and then set them loose to cause their own problems. I tend to keep some kind of emotional beat sheet nearby for reference, but I rarely plan out more than a few scenes in advance. Which might be why the whole questionnaire thing doesn’t gel with my process.

Pelting brand new characters with questionnaires has never once helped me flesh them out. I feel like I’m asking them questions in a vacuum. I don’t learn anything new or relevant, and I tend to give up in frustration around question five. The questionnaires tend to be more fun once I know the character pretty well in context. Even then, it’s not something that tends to give me any lightbulb moments about their character. It’s more like taking those Buzzfeed personality quizzes. Fun for passing the time, but not particularly insightful.

If the questionnaires do work for you, great! There’s no One True Way to write, and if it helps you to know what each of your characters keeps in their fridge, then awesome!

But if they make you, like me, feel lost at sea, here are a few alternatives to give your character development time a bit of focus.

Balance

This one is pretty simple; make sure you give your character a balance of positive and negative traits. All positive or all negative traits do not make for complexity.

I don’t mean surface-level traits, either. I don’t find “she’s a world-class athlete, but she can’t bake!” to make for particularly compelling characters either. Try going a little deeper.

If we take the last example, maybe something like, “she’s a dedicated go-getter when it comes to her Olympic dreams, but her focus can sometimes become tunnel-vision to the point where she often neglects her own needs.” You still have an excellent athlete who can’t bake, but it goes a level deeper. She’s an excellent athlete because of her dedication (positive trait). She can’t bake because of her self-destructive tunnel vision (negative trait).

The negative trait in that example is something of a Mirror Universe version of the positive trait. Dedication taken so far, it curls in on itself and becomes self-destructive. It’s a fairly reliable way to go, if you’re stuck on negative traits. Confidence can become arrogance. Heroic qualities can turn to smothering over-protectiveness. Selflessness can become martyrdom.

Positive and negative traits do not have to be directly related for a character to have complexity and balance. You might have a sharp-tongued hothead who secretly adores and coddles their rescue pets. Or maybe they’re personable and outgoing but are obsessively plotting the downfall of their nemesis.

I like to make sure at least one trait will be something that can come back to bite the characters as their arc progresses. It’s just more satisfying, to my taste, when the protagonist is causing their own most significant problems. I don’t want to go into character arcs in depth there (that’s a whole other blog post), but the tension and struggle between positive traits and negative ones are how you get the arc.

Want/Need/Fear/Wound

This method is just a squidge more technical than the last one. It also involves asking characters questions. (I know I just ragged on questionnaires, but this is different! I swear!)

I don’t always have each of these areas down pat before I start writing. Sometimes I only have what they want and a loose idea of what their “wound” is, and I’ll figure the rest out as I go along. But I also know that if I can’t tell what a protagonist’s want/need/fear/wound is by about halfway through, I have a problem.

All you need to know are the following:

1. What does this character want?

2. What do they need?

3. What are they afraid of?

4. How have they been hurt in the past? (and how does that hurt affect them now?)

I grouped those last two questions together because, in my mind, they’re linked together. I’ve seen others split them up into the “wound” and the “lie” the character believes because of it, but I tend to think of them as essentially the same thing.

What the character wants is their evaluation of what the ideal lifestyle looks like at the start of the story. They might want to maintain their perfect image, or climb the career ladder, or prove their high school science teacher wrong, or reconnect with their estranged father, or navigate an entire semester without getting suspended (again).

What a character wants is usually something they are aware of. A conscious, long-term goal which they often articulate either out loud or internally during the first few scenes.

This is not always the case when it comes to what they need. What characters need is the secret thing that will fulfill them emotionally, make them whole, and bring them true happiness. Often the character is not consciously aware of this at the start of the story—it’s something they have to discover about themselves as the story progresses and they find their attempts to go after what they want is not bringing them the satisfaction they hoped for.

Needs tend to have a more emotional bent than wants. Characters might need to learn to value themselves enough to get out of a toxic relationship. Or accept their loved ones as they are. Or let down their walls and let someone in.

If you’re struggling with this one, that’s okay. I’ve found that it can be useful to look at their fear or wound and then figure out what would negate that fear/wound in a meaningful way.

A character’s fear, much like their need, tends to be internal. Some characters might be afraid of an external event (zombies, anyone?), but the external event rarely qualifies as their fear, when we’re talking about character arcs. Even in Sharknado, I’d argue that Fin’s fear wasn’t the tornadoes full of sharks, it was losing what remained of his family.

Characters’ fears drive a lot of their choices. It’s absolutely possible to jump in and start writing without being able to explicitly state what each character is afraid of. Still, I think it’s useful, at some point, to step back and analyze what’s driving your characters to make the decisions they are. They might fear letting people down, or being left behind, or others finding out they’re less than perfect, or losing loved ones. They might fear failure, or judgment, or loneliness.

The key, I think, to an excellent, functional fear is to make it something the one big thing the character struggles with throughout the book. And by the end, they should either overcome it or be consumed by it. Books with happy endings usually feature protagonists who overcome their fears, while most tragedies will feature protagonists who are consumed by them.

Finally, the wound and lie are the things that got the character to this emotional space before the book began. They might have suffered through a bad breakup recently (wound), which led them to believe romantic love is too painful to pursue (lie). Their best friend might have died under mysterious circumstances (wound), which led them to believe the world and everyone in it is corrupt beyond redemption (lie). They might have been abandoned as a child by one parent (wound), which led them to believe they aren’t worthy of love (lie).

Wounds do not always have to be the most dramatic thing you can think of. Not all complex characters have a trail of dead loved ones in their wake. Wounds can be subtle, too. They just have to sting your character enough for them to batten down the hatches to protect themselves from further hurt. For some characters, that might mean a close friend recently turned on them. For others, it might be that they wished their parents were around more as they grew up. Or they were an army brat and still don’t feel like they have a real home.

Like I said, this is a method that I often keep in mind as I write. I don’t always have every answer before I start, but it helps me focus when I need to delve deeper into my protagonists. I often don’t worry about figuring this stuff out in such depth with my secondary characters, since they tend to have less pronounced arcs.

Quick and Dirty Complex Characters

This last one is basically an adaptation of rolling up a new character for D&D. I haven’t used it much for writing-writing, but it’s a pretty solid way of keeping role-play characters consistent, and I don’t know why it wouldn’t work for novel characters, too.

The part of character creation that deals with personalities suggests giving each character two personality traits, one ideal, one bond, and one flaw.

Personality traits, in this case, are not necessarily about positive or negative. They tend to be more external than the traits I was talking about earlier. A lot of it has to do with the skills or accomplishments that make that specific character special, or how they present themselves to the rest of the world in appearance or attitude.

An ideal is the core belief of any given character—their internal compass.

A bond is another individual (or group, or sometimes even a thing), to whom the character is particularly attached for one reason or another. That person/group/thing might be someone they love, or something they obsess over, or their greatest nemesis.

A flaw is—you guessed it—a flaw in the character’s personality. Any of the negative traits I talked about above would qualify. Vices, self-destruction, penchants for cruelty, naivety.

Throw all that together in a pot (or pick a D&D background and roll them up, I guess!) and you should have a pretty decent starting point for your characters.


And that’s about it for now! How do you usually come up with your characters? Let me know in the comments. And good luck to anyone else attempting Camp NaNo this year!

One response to “Creating Complex Characters”

  1. And who wants to fill out questionnaires for all your characters? Would take forever! They develop off each other anyway, so their answers might be totally different by the end of the book. But it does mean I usually have to rewrite the first few chapters I wrote once I’ve written the last 🤷

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: