Characters: Simple and Complex. What does that mean?
According to Chuck Wendig, “A good character is both simple and complex: Simplicity on the surface eradicates any barrier to entry, and complexity beneath rewards the reader and gives the character both depth and something to do.” –The Kick-Ass writer
I love characters that are simple and complex, who offer me easy access into their world, but have a lot going on underneath. Some of the most fascinating characters are those whose beliefs and reasons for doing things are relatable, even while their actions and behaviors are downright sketchy and/or awful.
I also appreciate a lot of Wendig’s statements on writing. However, this statement is itself both simple and complex. It states what is required from us as writers to provide solid reader access and engagement, and it’s a great way of articulating the need to create accessible characters who are well-rounded. However, while he spells out the what here, he doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of how to do it.
How, then, does one create characters that meet both requirements?
Accessible and Engaging Characters
As a book coach, I talk a lot about the need to develop well-rounded, multi-faceted, believable characters. Most readers want to hang out with protagonists the can relate to, or characters they can come to care deeply about. Readers, like myself, want to read about characters they could imaging being or be friends with. At the very least, we want to relate and understand them. So, as a writer, I work to create protagonists that are accessible and engaging and who could conceivably have full, rich lives outside the pages of the story we are telling.
Getting To Know Them
The best way to do that is to get to know them on a deep and intimate level. I am not suggesting you interview your characters. Though, there are writers who use just such exercise to get to know their characters better. However, IMHO, there is no good reason to ask what their favorite color is, unless that bit of information will come into play.
Instead, I coach my writers to consider who their characters are on a deep level, to explore their complexities by identifying their strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and how they see the world. We also work to identify the character’s key misbelief. (For a great resource on this, see Lisa Cron’s Story Genius.)
Make Them Multi-Faceted
People have so many sides, it would be near impossible to enumerate and describe every single facet of a single individual. Even at a high level, we are many things to many people.
I am a daughter, mother, sister, cousin, aunt, grandmother, wife, business owner, author, mentor, grant professional, post-graduate, senior, employee, etc., etc. I grew up in large family, a small town, with limited resources. I am artistic, driven, often anxious, sensitive, strong, loyal, and so on.
These facets of my lived experience and who I have grown to be, color my world view and how I live in it. They provide the underlying foundation for how I think and behave. And they don’t always align. Sometimes, my own personality traits war with one another and create internal turmoil.
Characters should come across the same way. As fully developed people. Not every aspect need be presented in a single story or novel, but knowing these kinds of things about the characters will color our stories and imbue the characters with personality.
Populate Your World With Fully Realized Characters
Once authors have identified the key personality facets for the protagonist, I have them do the same with their antagonist and any other key characters.
Then, I have them put these personality traits into a chart and look for ways that characters can push each other’s buttons. Topics on which characters disagree are great opportunities to add tension to a scene, and even BFFs don’t agree on everything! Not only that, but creating tension around a topic provides the opportunity to explore and expose the related facets of your character, which provides us with more access while also deepening our understanding of them as complex people.
I hope this process helps you create characters that are both simple and complex!
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