How to Write Complex Characters + Infographic!

How do we design character? Do we start from the outside and work our way in? Or do we start with the inside and work our way out?

Before I get started today, I want to be clear, I don’t believe there is any right and wrong way to design character. We’re all going to have our own unique methods of creating and developing character. However, I do believe there are some important questions we should be asking ourselves along the way in order to develop complex characters.

I think it’s typical for many of us writers to think of physical attributes of our characters first when designing them.

Physicality are things such as what these characters look like and even extend to things such as what a character likes and dislikes. There is so much fun to be had in tailoring a character’s appearance, and in my own process, I’ve found that it takes me a lot of time playing around with these images and ideas before I can really dig into the psyche of my characters.

While not all appearances will be superficial, often a complex character will have distinctive features, or scars or a particular way they wear their hair that is deeply rooted in their innermost being, let’s just say that when I begin to think about my characters and their looks, I don’t think all that deeply!

Once I strip them of their marvelous violet eyes and their delightful silver hair, I have to think a bit harder. Who is my character really?

10 Questions to Help Write Complex Characters (1)
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Here are a series of questions that I use to help me figure that out.

What makes your character tick? (For example, is this person a jerk, is this person incredibly kind?)

Why is your character the way they are?

What past life events has your character experienced that have molded your character?

What was their response?

As a writer, I believe you have to play a bit of a therapist and a bit of a psychologist to understand how things affect people in a logical way. I am by no means a psychology buff, but my husband has his Master’s in psych so I get to pick his brain about all types of hypothetical situations and how those events might affect a person and their personality as they grow up.

However, you don’t need a psych major to understand your characters. You just need to have empathy for them.

Try to think of what their life aspirations might be, what their motivations are, for example:

What makes this character get up out of bed every morning?

What keeps them going?

Who keeps them going?

Why do they keep going?

What would happen if they didn’t keep going?

Delve into your characters’ stories, the ones that have taken place before the one that you’re actually trying to write, and figure them all out. Understand them and their past. The better you do, the more real they will be to you, and the more real and authentic they’ll be to you reader as well!

The next set of questions to consider once you’ve figured out your cast of characters are:

If my character behaves this way/responds to situations this way, how does this affect the story?

Do I need a different character in this spot for this story to make sense?

Now that this jerk has complicated my story because they are so stubborn, how do these complications bring tension to the story and how can I use that to my advantage?

I’m more of a planster when it comes to writing, so I’ll plan my way through but as the story takes shape, let it lead me where it sees fit. In my experience, I’ve seen that you can plot the best storyline, have all the right beats, but when it comes to writing a scene and the character is so real and their decision would never line up with the one you planned for them…the best thing to do for both the character and the reader is to give them the satisfaction of seeing you (as the writer) be true to the character you’ve developed.

I also believe that many of these facets of characterization develop over time. The number of questions you can ask to develop character is pretty much endless. But they’re all hoping to get to the root of WHO your character is.

The task every writer takes upon themselves when they endeavor to write a dynamic and three-dimensional character is to attempt to completely and fully understand a complex human being.

Creating and developing a character that is real, that is complex and doesn’t fall flat on the page takes time and over the course of writing will naturally develop as the writing moves into different stages. As the writer moves through the story and through different drafts of the story, more of the character will reveal themselves to the writer. It’s like having a relationship, just with an invisible person that lives in your head. A bit scary but also a very creative and fulfilling experience.

Part of the reason that characters fall flat on the page is that once you strip away all the superficial aspects of their being, what they look like, whether or not they like bacon, etc, what you’re left with is the soul of that character.

You should be left with what makes them unique and as the reader, you should see why THIS character is the one that needed to be in THIS story as opposed to any other.

If, however, once those things are stripped away and nothing is left, if there is no purpose for this character in their life then it becomes glaringly obvious that the writer didn’t think as much as they should have about who this person was.

When a character falls flat they don’t seem real to the reader and the reading experience isn’t as immersive.

I’ve created an infographic for you to print, save to your phone or pin for later!

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Developing complex characters is all about creating an immersive reading experience for our readers. No matter what genre we may write, character creation is all about being able to transport our readers someplace else, whether that be within the pages of a fantasy novel or the high-octane pages of an adventure novel.

So from my heart to yours, I pray that you’ll feel equipped to develop the characters that you’ve been dreaming of, that you’ll be encouraged in your journey to write and that, most of all, nothing I’ve said today has caused you harm but only served to motivate you and lift you and your journey up.

I hope I’ll see you again for my next post!

Keep Reading and Keep Writing,

Nicolette Elzie

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