How do you write "complex" characters?

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OldNoEyes
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How do you write "complex" characters?

#1 Post by OldNoEyes » Sat Nov 23, 2019 10:15 pm

One of the things I was taught during college was that "complex" characters are built on contradictions--a tough guy who's actually sensitive, a comedian who hides deep sadness, etc.

I wrote an article for the Fantasy Hive on Jack & Miranda's characters from Mass Effect 2 based on that idea, but I wanted to get you opinions on what makes a complex (or engaging) character.

What do "complex" characters look like to you, and what are some VNs that do complex characters really well?
Last edited by OldNoEyes on Sat Feb 15, 2020 5:49 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: How do you write "complex" characters?

#2 Post by Desertopa » Sun Nov 24, 2019 2:06 pm

I think the idea that complexity is built on contradictions doesn't really lend itself to helpful, actionable writing advice. Actually, I think that if taken at face value, it makes for pretty bad advice. The first character that brings to mind for me is Ivy, of Soul Calibur, specifically because of a long online discussion I took part in years back regarding the fact that according to supplemental materials, Ivy, who's regularly treated as a sex symbol, is actually chaste. Some people involved in the discussion felt that the point of that characterization decision was to make her sexuality seem less threatening to the player base, but I take a different perspective. That information is hidden away in supplemental materials which most players will never even read, and doesn't actually inform her depiction in the games, and my feeling is that some writer decided it would be more interesting if the information in those supplemental materials was surprising and counter to audiences' expectations. But, if taken as an attempt to make Ivy a more complex character, it's extremely clumsy and ill-conceived. It simply clashes with the characterization she presents in the games and makes her seem less like a believable and fully-realized character. If the writer was aiming for contradiction, they definitely achieved that, but it didn't result in a more interesting or compelling character.

I think that I would describe a complex character as one whose thoughts and motives are coherent and comprehensible, but not accessible at a surface level of familiarity. In a complex character, apparent "contradictions" in their characterization resolve into consistency with their underlying traits and motives. The genocidal villain who shows compassion for individuals within his personal bubble who're members of the same group he's trying to exterminate turns out to operate under heavy compartmentalization, or maybe has some consistent ethical philosophy that involves different sorts of commitments on personal and political levels. The caring and nurturing mother figure turns out to be deeply judgmental and vindictive, because her standards for caring are strictly conditional, or because she feels it's her job to keep her family safe, healthy, and unified against the rest of the world, which can't be trusted, etc. The underlying characterization explains their different behavior in different situations, so there's no true contradiction, but the audience needs to develop significant familiarity with the character to grasp what that underlying characterization is. A character with true contradictions, not explained by a coherent underlying characterization which plays out in every scene they're a part of, isn't complex, just inconsistent.

While apparent contradictions don't make a character complex (and a character can be complex without their behavior seeming contradictory,) seeming contradictions can inform the audience that they don't yet understand the character in question, that the model they've built of that character isn't complete. If the audience never sees the character do something unexpected, they never have to develop a more sophisticated model of the character's underlying personality. But for the audience to stay invested in a character, they ought to always retain the intuition that the character makes sense, and their motives can be comprehended. Lose that, and any new contradictions or surprises will just annoy the audience.

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Re: How do you write "complex" characters?

#3 Post by Mutive » Mon Nov 25, 2019 12:42 pm

One of the best bits of writing advice I ever got was to ask what your character would never do...then push them to do just that.

Which isn't to say that this creates complex characters, but it is a really fun exercise. (Even if you don't use it.)

I think as far as complexity goes, complex characters to me are those who seem "real". They have multiple interests and goals (even if they're not all readily apparent). They care about a number of things (even if they care most about a limited number of things). They are flawed in ways that are real and significant. (e.g. they're unpopular in school because they're kind of abrasive or genuinely socially awkward rather than that they tend to trip on things) They're not liked by everyone, because no one is, and they're not hated by everyone either, because almost everyone has someone who cares about them.

I think the best advice for trying to write "complex" characters is to observe people as honestly as you can. Think of one of your friends? What do you like about him/her? What drives you crazy about them? Make a list. Think deeply on it and try to find things that aren't "obvious". (e.g. you might find your partner's beautiful blue eyes super sexy, but maybe you also love watching him wake up and kind of squint at the sun before rolling over and pleading for five more minutes before waking up every morning. The first is more apparent and perhaps more shallow, the second is kind of adorable, kind of irritating, and more likely to add depth to your POV character).
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Re: How do you write "complex" characters?

#4 Post by Katy133 » Mon Nov 25, 2019 8:51 pm

It's difficult for me to write advice on how to write compelling characters because at this point, my instinct feels kinda intuitive when I write a new character. A piece of advice that I can give is to give your main character a foil: A character who in some way is the opposite of your first character. That way, when they interact, they have chemistry. When they are placed next to each other, their different personalities stand out even more than if they were on their own.
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Re: How do you write "complex" characters?

#5 Post by 磯七ラスミ » Sun Dec 08, 2019 6:13 am

Contradictions make audience stay thoughtful about your character. But as you can guess, overusing that method cheapens it.
How many little girls and tiny villains with threatening words have you seen in fiction?
I prefer using the exception. Exceptions are more customizable. For example, have a character play three different sports, but fall short at one of them.

Characters with solid structures are likely to being interesting, because you trust their development. Having them react in situation and matched with other characters is highly expected. Listening to their inner thoughts, viewing how they show or hide information from other characters or to witness them fight with their mixed thoughts... I want to read that!

The changes in their minds (and looks, why not) adds more to one already good character. If they learn something, solve inner conflicts or sharpen their wits they are more believable and closer to your heart, don't they? (Downslide effects of depression, wildness and confusion could work too.)

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Re: How do you write "complex" characters?

#6 Post by Applegate » Thu Dec 19, 2019 10:30 am

I feel like the complexity of a given character relies, in part, on the situations surrounding it. But to keep a long story short, I believe complexity is achieved when a character's desire and person are opposed.

A boy who hates his dad, and wants his dad to be proud of him. A man who wants to put his wife at #1, but prioritises work whenever he can. A lady who longs for the freedom to be herself, even as she forces herself ever more into a strict role.

These characters have desires. Their actions contradict those desires. I think that breeds the complexity and contradiction we're all looking for: these people need to confront themselves to find happiness.

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Re: How do you write "complex" characters?

#7 Post by earthpow » Fri Jan 03, 2020 10:35 pm

My view of a complex character often those that completely change in views of the world throughout the story. Good to bad, nice to sad, sane to crazy. Pushing the boundary or the rise/fall between the two states takes some really creative writing.

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Re: How do you write "complex" characters?

#8 Post by arty » Tue Feb 04, 2020 9:22 am

Writing a character is mostly intuition to me. They seem to develop naturally over time from my initial, barebones concepts. But I do sit down and think about my characters every now and then.

I think what makes a character confusing is giving them many contradicting goals and emotions, and having them react to situations in ways you didn't previously establish.

What makes a character complex in my opinion is giving them an inner life on top of their surface. We as humans have personas that we present to the people around us every day, intentionally or not.

I think you'd agree that real people are complex. You are most likely complex.
Now if you were to write a story where you appear as a character, you should be automatically a complex character, right?

The thing is, a character can be as complex as a real person.... if they are not portrayed in a complex way, the reader will think they are flat, anyway.
It's about showing the reader/viewer/player what the character is made of.

Give the character a core: their secret or deepest motivations. Then, give them personas: the way they present themself to the public, workplace, friends, or family.
Have them act like one of their personas around the POV character - this should not contradict the character's core too much, but also not give it away easily. If there's enough "screentime", you can even show multiple of their personas by putting them in a different environment. The contrast will create intrigue.

Your job as the writer is to come up with a plot that pushes them into eventually dropping their personas (if they're not just an unimportant side character). If you set this up carefully, the reveal of their core will not be confusing, but rather an "aha!" moment for the reader. It should feel like we're suddenly seeing the whole piece, and it will be made of parts we have been shown before.

If you're using this technique on the POV character, it works similarly. In that case, the POV character should show one of their personas to the reader. Note that this works best with limited POV.

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