Storytelling

Five Steps for Adding Character Complexity

Data may be an android, but he spends a lot of time and attention on his cat, Spot.

New character concepts can be thrilling. But if we just take our initial, exciting concept and run with it, we may end up with a character that’s one-dimensional. Flat characters feel less realistic, are more annoying, and become boring once their novelty wears thin.

You can turn an amusing character into someone with staying power by creating additional sides to their personality. Here’s a few steps to jump start this process.

1. Give Them Different Contexts

It’s easy to think of your character as a “shrewd detective” or a “patient mother,” but complex characters are more like a “shrewd detective and patient mother” – and many things besides. To avoid defining your character entirely by their work or home life, make a list of all the different roles they fill. You’ll want to include:

  • Their career: You don’t have to stop at the job your character has. What job does he wish he had? What does he like or not like about his current one? And don’t forget, she could be unemployed, working part time, working overtime, or in school instead of doing a 40-hour week. Maybe money’s going down the drain as she struggles to earn a profit as an artist.
  • Their home: What is home for your character? It could be an RV, a mansion, or a dungeon in the spirit realm. Is someone waiting for her there? Does he get home early to make dinner or head out to pick up the kids? Think about the responsibilities involved with their home and who’s doing them.
  • Friends and Hobbies: Make sure your character has at least one hobby. He might also have a group of friends that are specific to the hobby – poker players or knitting buddies he doesn’t spend time with otherwise. Or maybe she has friends that go out to the club and movies with her but also will take care of the kids when the babysitter calls in sick. They might have two sets of friends that can’t stand each other and alternate between them.
  • Community, Charity, or Church: Does your character have another place to connect with people and contribute to a larger group? Is she a senior or junior member? Does he help coordinate activities, volunteer for events, or just show up to eat the food?

Don’t let their life revolve around just one of these areas. Say goodbye to the detective that spends all day in the office only to return to a bleak and empty home. If they are a recluse who has trouble connecting, at least make them spend some time with a therapist or at a rehab center.

2. Choose Important Relationships

Another key to rounding out our characters is to list the people they relate to and how they relate to them. We might think of our characters as friendly or rude, but no one acts the same way for everyone they know. Make sure your character knows people that:

  • Bring out different behaviors: Your character will show different sides of their personality around different people. She might have one friend she gossips with and another that just sits in the same room with her while they both futz with their phones. He might have a sister that brings out his competitive side and an ailing father that makes him act soft and nurturing.
  • They like and some they don’t like: Your character will feel comfortable with some people more than others. It’s up to you to decide why, but avoid making everyone your protagonist dislikes into evil caricatures. Perhaps he interprets frank people as abrasive, or she finds excitable people tiring. Then make at least one person who your character both likes and dislikes. Perhaps they have an intimate but troubled history, or they have both admirable and despicable aspects.
  • They open up to and some they put up a front for: Emotional intimacy varies dramatically depending on the people involved. Pick someone your character might bear her heart and soul to, even if she does it by writing a letter that’s placed on a gravestone. Then choose someone your character is deliberately misleading. Perhaps he doesn’t want his mother to know he’s homeless and unemployed, so when she visits he finds excuses why they can’t go to his home or workplace.

You can design some relationships to reinforce a central characteristic, like an overbearing parent for a rebellious teen. But in that case, give them a sympathetic uncle as well. That will show your audience what it takes to bring out the other side of your character.

3. Describe Their Culture and Heritage

If you haven’t yet, contemplate your character’s sense of identity. What labels do they embrace or reject? It should go beyond simple phrases like “I’m a girl” to encompass how they fit in to a society at large and the other social groups that mean something to them. Consider these factors:

  • Demographic: You probably know the gender, age, and race of your character. But how does your character feel about these characteristics? Your character might decide he has to protect his manhood by adopting masculine traits, or he might just shrug and wear the pink nail polish he likes. She might relish her youth or impatiently wait until she’s old enough to drink.
  • Family legacy: Where is your character’s family from? Have they maintained important ethnic traditions or passed down valuable heirlooms? What did her family teach her about her place in the world? Does he still believe what his parents said about religion and politics, or does he disagree?
  • Subculture: How does your character identify people they are likely to get along with? Does he look for clothing that is expensive, trendy, or rebellious? Does she seek out people who like the same art and music or who have the same ideological beliefs? Describe the personal choices that are important to them.

Add something that would surprise your audience based on how your character appears at first glance. Maybe they dress in a crisp suit whenever they’re out and about, but once they get home they wear flowery sweaters hand-knitted by a great uncle.

4. Show Different Attitudes

Dig a little deeper into their psyche, and give them a diverse emotional palette. This should affect their general outlook and change the way they react to different situations.

  • Pick several moods: You probably already know your character’s general temperament, but round them out with additional characteristics. Does she lean toward jaded, excitable, patient, or all three? Is he angry yet sympathetic or depressed yet peppy?
  • Identify personality flaws and strengths: Give your character additional upsides and downsides. For each one, think about how it affects their life. Maybe his knack for listening has earned him a diverse set of friends. Perhaps her impatience means she takes on too much work, because she isn’t willing to wait for others to get it done.
  • Locate sore spots and points of pride: Your character should have tender areas a nefarious character could take advantage of as well as memories that motivate and inspire them. Maybe she’s ashamed of her below-average test scores. Perhaps he’s proud of his carefully groomed beard and full head of hair.

Once you’ve come up with these characteristics, connect them with some of the aspects you listed from other sections. What context brings out their flaws? What moods do they feel with different people?

5. Create Exceptions

Now you should have a well-rounded idea of who your character is. Add an additional layer of complexity by specifying how the things you listed might not be true in specific situations.

  • When does their context change? He hates going home when his family is away, so he sleeps on a friend’s couch instead. She takes time away from her regular work to engage in a fun, seasonal job.
  • How might their relationships with other people be different? She doesn’t get along with her father – except when they go on skiing trips. It gives them a real bonding opportunity. He meets with a friend just to laugh at terrible movies, but when he needs to get something off his chest, he knows this friend will listen.
  • What identity do they adopt occasionally? His family is mostly Hispanic, but one grandmother is Chinese, and he celebrates this heritage on the Chinese New Year. She likes to wear high heels and a summer dress, but on the occasional Saturday night she dresses up as a drag king and takes a straight girl out on a date, just to prove she can be masculine, too.
  • What makes them feel different? She’s morose most of the time, but after she spends a week at her favorite woodland cabin she comes back happy and refreshed. He’s distracted by anything that moves, except when he holds a bow. Then nothing can draw his attention from his target.

Once you’re done creating exceptions, you’re ready for the big test: can you imagine your character shopping at a grocery store? If your setting either doesn’t have grocery stores or actually takes place in a grocery store, picture a task that is in your setting but far outside the context of your story. If your character’s presence in this hypothetical scene doesn’t create cognitive discord, then you’re well on your way to having a complex character.

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