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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?
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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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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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.)
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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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.
We always have to be careful that rules of thumb don't box us in, and that writing doesn't just turn into a form of Mad Libs/fill in the blank types of storytelling.
If you want to give a character depth I would say give them a backstory. It's hard to give depth to characters who have no history. But once start creating their history you start seeing them as real people. Once they start to seem like real people, sometimes you can't write them doing or saying something because it just doesn't fit their character.
The more depth you want, the more history you should write. You could design a character that doesn't like pizza. It could be that he just never was interested in it, or their backstory has them getting severe food poisoning and the taste makes them want to puke. How would those two different histories change a story where the guy rejects an offer of pizza? You don't even need to explain it in the story, but it does alter the reaction. Often the reader/player/audience will catch something, and know there is some sort of history that is hinted at.
That being said the level of depth must be thought of before the story is written. Some stories are fine being more shallow. Some depth can be one line, especially for NPCs.
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I view characters as a product of their world. So when making characters, rather than start with a specific personality I start by looking at who this character is as a person. In the case of my own story, at least one of the following traits plays a significant role in the personality of each major character:
Home life/family relations
Then, I consider how these ideas when applied to a character could add to and shape their personality as well as how they can provide opportunity for drama, conflict, and growth. For example, one character belongs to an oppressed grouping of people but also sees justice in service to their nation. In the course of the story, they will come to decide which elements of their identity they are willing to embrace and which they are willing to sacrifice. It stands to reason therefore that this character will be outwardly vocal but have a certain amount of inner unvoiced thoughts. They have to "keep their hand close", and that will shape their interactions with others accordingly.
Another character has a strong sense of tradition and cultural/religious identity with a close upbringing which shapes their perception of the world and their approach to the idea of justice, but they are then forced to face contradictions within this. This character is able to find joy in the simple things but will have a hard time adapting to changes imposed on them. Basically, rather than start with "I want a mysterious, quiet personality" or "I want a friendly and morally good character", I start with "This is what this person is". For a serious drama with realistic personalities, this works better. But ultimately, what personality works best as the main character depends entirely on the type of story you want to tell and how you design them will have to consider that. Even these traits I described only matter because such things are relevant to the world they are set in.
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