By: K.M. Weiland
The most ironic thing about complex characters in fiction is that the essence of what makes them so wonderfully complicated is actually incredibly simple. Complex characters are complex for one reason: dichotomy. That one word is the solution to all your character problems. Cliched stereotypes? Fixed. Dysfunctional character arcs? Done. Boring personalities? No more!
For all its grand simplicity, dichotomous complexity in our characters can actually be surprisingly easy to overlook. We can get so caught up in creating a hero or a loner or an orphan or an idealist that we forget what makes any person interesting is the surprising contrasts, the seeming contradictions–the place in our lives where our virtues collide and coexist with our faults.
Creating Complex Characters in Their Beliefs and Motives
We sometimes use “complex” synonymously with “complicated.” But what complex really means is “made up of many working parts.” Complex characters are those who have more than one facet. Remember when we were studying character arcs, and we talked about how any character change must revolve around two completely opposite beliefs: the Truth and the Lie (as represented by the Thing the Character Needs and the Thing the Character Wants). It is these two beliefs, at war within the character, that creates the catalyst for fascinating themes and character studies.
A character who wants one thing, pursues it with single-minded focus, and achieves it is boring. How much better when he wants and believes in two totally different–and, even better, exclusive–things? We all do this. Be super-model skinny and also eat ice cream before bed every night? You bet!
In real life, this ability of ours is often frustrating, but it’s always an opportunity for learning more about ourselves and the world in which we live. Same goes for our characters. In Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black, Death wants to end his loneliness by living as a human, while on another
is compelled to continue his duty as the Grim Reaper. level
Creating Complex Characters in Their Roles
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