Complex characters are at the core of a compelling story.
Although characters and plot usually go hand in hand, it is often the internal psychology and action of the characters that drives the story and keeps the reader’s attention.
But character development goes further than a basic profile of appearance and personality traits.
Why are complex characters important?
When was the last time you felt engaged by a flat character? You probably can’t remember much about the the experience because, well, there just isn’t much to remember.
Characters should be like real people- flawed and confused and complex.
Not only does complexity drive a story (and probably makes your plot line a lot more interesting), it keeps readers engaged and invested in the stakes and decisions of that character.
Why should you outline your characters?
As I mentioned in How to Outline Your Novel, outlining isn’t for everyone. Discovery writers may prefer to discover their characters as they go along (this is perfectly valid method).
But, I find that having at least a rough outline, or the core of a character means you can focus on the details as you write, without having to worry about the basics.
The basic character profile
As always, start with the basics.
The first part of your character profile can include:
- Physical appearance- the key to this section is details. Don’t tell me your protagonist has brown hair and smooth skin. Tell me they have a slightly lop-sided bob that hangs too low over their eyes and a small patch of spots on their left cheek.
- Background– who is their family? Do they have a good relationship with them? Where do they live and go to school? Have hey had any past/ current relationships? What was their childhood like?
- Hobbies– try to think about how these can link to their personality and portrayal throughout the book, instead of just brainstorming random activities.
- Likes/ dislikes.
- Strengths/ weaknesses- we’ll go more in depth with this later, but still take some time to think about your individual characters; try to avoid, ‘they’re clever but clumsy’.
Now you have the basics, it’s time to delve a little further into the core of your characters. With this section, focus on the protagonist and any other main characters or key side characters.
People are made up of juxtapositions; characters should be the same. Not only does this match real life, it also makes for characters that are really enjoyable to read about.
If your character is kind and caring, give them a selfish moment. Give your strong character a terrible weakness that keeps cropping up. Let your confident characters have moments of self-doubt.
Contradictions are the ultimate way to make your characters flawed (read: complex). Often characters greatest strengths are also connected to their flaws in the extreme.
Find the character’s voice
This doesn’t just mean what they sound like. It’s in how they interact with people, how they are perceived and how they express themselves.
Practise talking as your character– note down any characterisms they have; do they stutter? Are they confident? Do they say what’s in their mind? How do they act in a group? How do they deal with awkward situations?
If you’re having trouble separating your characters from each other, try writing a situation/ conservation without tags. If you can’t tell between your characters, likely your readers can’t!
Once you have a character’s voice, delve deeper into what’s in their head.
This is especially useful if you’re writing in 1st person- readers are only going to keep going if your protagonist’s mind is an interesting place to be.
A character’s mind can be a very messy place; it’s the perfect place to create conflict. This is where the dark room comes in. Think about this as the hidden part of their personality- a culmination of internal conflict and external situation. It’s a part of your character that they don’t show and maybe a part they don’t even realise exists (but often the reader can see it).
Wants and needs
What are their motivations at the beginning of the story? What sets them off on the path they go down throughout the plot? How do those motivations change as they interact with the people around them and find out new information?
If you have these two concepts clear for each major character from the start, it’ll be much easier to insert them into the plot smoothly and in a believable way.
Before I start writing, I usually like to take this last step to really get into the heads of my characters.
Choose some free-writing prompts (you can find these with a quick search) and insert your characters into those situations. It doesn’t matter if they have nothing to do with your story, they’re just to help you practise writing and differentiating your characters.
Learning through the story
It’s all too easy to get stuck in writing 10-page character profiles and developing their voices through scenes and scenes. Eventually, you have to just start.
Your characters will grow so much throughout the story (and will probably end up completely differently to how you initially envisioned them).
A LAST REMINDER: flesh out your characters throughout the story. Just like worldbuilding, if you dump every single detail about their appearance and personality in the first 5 pages, the readers will lose interest quickly.
Instead, focus on how you can bring out their personalities through interactions (again, this comes back to SHOW, DON’T TELL), reactions and internal psychology (their thoughts on the page).
Do you create complex character profiles for each story or just dive in? Are you going to put in any of these questions? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or you can connect with me directly on any of my social medias.