The Ultimate Guide On How To Make A Complex Character Featured Image

The Ultimate Guide On How To Make A Complex Character

How To Write Complex Characters So You Can Write A Story That You Are Proud Of

Character development is critical to writing a wonderful story. Today, I am going to teach you how to make a complex character by explaining what a complex character is, and providing you with ways you can start developing one today. If you want to write a book that you can be proud of, then keep reading.

Take Note: Any advice you receive is relative. Please do not feel overwhelmed by all the writing tips and advice you see on the internet, in books, and elsewhere. Instead, take it with a grain of salt and only use what works for you.

Why is character development important?

It’s been said on this blog before, but it is worth noting again. Character development is important because your characters hold the story together. Without a strong character, your readers will have no reason to carry on reading.

Books are amazing, and you love reading them. But, it is the characters that stick with you. Your favorite scenes are your favorite because of what your characters did in those scenes. You have characters you relate to, or dare I say, even one or two that you look up to. 

Why writing complex characters is important

You may have heard of the distinct character types. They can be dynamic, static, round, stock, or symbolic. Any of these characters can be complex; however, for the focus of this blog post, I am going to focus on dynamic characters. 

Your character is dynamic if they change over the course of your story. Making your character complex allows you to create conflict within your story that your character must overcome. The importance of this, of course, is to entertain your reader; to keep them wanting for that ultimate resolution. Having a complex character also gives your reader someone to talk about. Your character is a conversation piece because they feel real.

What makes a character complex?

Harry Potter example of a complex character
Thank you to juliooliveiraa for the image of Severus Snape shown above.

A complex character has 6 elements:

  1. They have a backstory
  2. They have a personality 
  3. They have strengths and weaknesses, just like actual people
  4. They have conflicting motivations
  5. They change as the story goes along
  6. Pivotal moments show who they truly are (think fight or flight, hero or villain, etc.)

A good complex character will have all six of these elements. These elements will also work together. For example, their personality doesn’t conflict with the backstory. Instead, everything flows together naturally and makes sense.

These elements show how important plot is. What happens in your book is important because it shapes who your character will become. However, what happened before your book is just as important. The complexity starts from the character’s backstory and works its way up to the pivotal moment(s).

How To Work On Creating A Complex Character

This is just the beginning. You need to start by knowing what happened before. You can achieve this in one of two ways. 

First you can start with the literal beginning of your character (not the beginning of your book unless they are a baby). We will get into the ways you can create their life, but think of it like this. How would you summarize your life to where you are now? 

In fact, do that. 

Take out some paper or type it out. For me, I would start from before I was even born because I believe it influenced who I became. Then, there are very key moments that I would never leave out because they are the pieces that make me who I am today. So, write out your life. Then, read it back to yourself and recognize how real those memories are, how important they are. 

That is the level of importance you need to give your beginning character. 

But hold on to your britches because we will go into the next steps you need to take soon. 

The second way you can start is with the end in mind. This would work well if you know the type of person you want your character to be at the end and if you already have your plot heavily outlined. Then, you’d work backwards. What you’ll soon realize is that certain scenes shape who your character is; just like I explained earlier. 

So, start thinking about those important scenes that your character went through before your book to make them who they are at the beginning of your story. 

This also works well if you have already written your book, but you want your character to feel more lifelike.

Regardless of where you start, create contradictions in your character. You will want to create flaws. But these flaws should make sense to the story and who they are as a person. Here are a few (of many) questions you can ask yourself in order to add in contradictions to your character:

  • Do they have certain moral or ethical beliefs that they must put to the side during a pivotal moment in your book? (ex. Lying to a person they care about because they believe the truth would hurt more)
  • Do they do something that the reader wouldn’t expect (ex. Standing up for themselves when they are submissive)
  • Do they have a nickname that makes no sense to the way they look or behave (ex. a man who is muscular being called tiny)
  • Do they have a skill that would seem impossible from the outside perspective (ex. a blind person who can paint)

Ways To Write Strong Characters

It’s all good and well to know how you are supposed to start. But I want to provide you with some steps to nudge you in the right direction. Pick what works for you.

How to make a complex character pin

Start At The Beginning | The Backstory

The beginning is as good a place as any to start. Think about where they were born, who their parents are, and what name they were given. 

Then ask yourself if this was a pivotal moment in their life. I know what you are thinking. They were just born. How could this possibly be a pivotal moment? Well, for a couple of reasons. 

  • This could be the moment their parents decided to stay together. Or it could be the last time the character ever saw their parents. This effectively makes a tremendous difference in their upbringing.
  • The birth could have taken place somewhere that would later be important. Or it could have taken place during a major event (weather, war, politics, etc.).

Next, you will want to move into their childhood. 

  • Where were they raised? 
  • Is it an individualistic or collectivistic society?
  • One parent or two-parent household?
  • Beginning education?
  • What were the characters’ dreams as a child?
  • Did they undergo a lot of stressors early in life?
  • Did they have a favorite color, toy, food, etc?
  • Did they have imaginary friends?
  • Were they bullied or were they the bully?
  • Did they have hobbies or play sports?
  • Did they learn special or unique skills?

Think about it like this, if you were to write an origin story, what would you write about? If their story was told from their point of view, what would they say about their childhood? How do they look back on it? What did they think life was going to be like when they grew up (assuming they are a grownup)?

Lastly, you just keep doing this for each stage of their life until you get to the point where your book begins.

Another helpful hint is to stop at every major event of their life and flesh it out in detail. If it helps, write mini stories for each major event in your character’s life.

Start At The End | The Pivotal Moment

Like I said earlier, this will only help if you are one of those writers who planned your story out already or if you have written your story, but you are trying to go back through it and make your characters even better. To start at the end, you can answer some questions:

  • What is important to your character now?
  • What do they think like now? (quick on their feet, logical, with compassion, etc.)
  • Who are their friends now?
  • Who do they consider as family?
  • What is not important?
  • What do they desire?
  • What do they fear?
  • Are they in a relationship?
  • Do they work? If so, where? And why?
  • What motivates them?
  • What are their interests?

Then answer these same questions but for who your character is at the beginning of the book? What specific moments made these answers change and why? 

Now you have a fantastic sense of who they are and why they changed. So, you can go back even further to before the book started and ask yourself: what moments made them who they were at the beginning and why?

Create a character profile

To outline your character, you will need to create a character profile. The easiest way to do this is to start on the outside and work your way in. You already have their backstory (or at least a rough idea of their backstory). 

So let’s now get into their physical appearance.

Pretend you are meeting your character for the first time. They are behind a curtain and you watch as the curtain rises. First you see their feet and you slowly look up and up until finally you lock eyes with them. Describe them just like this. Imagine every little detail with the perfections and imperfections. In addition to what you see, try to answer the following as specifically as you can:

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Fashion sense
  • Haircut/color
  • Skin color
  • The way they smile (or don’t)
  • Mannerisms
  • The way they walk, stand, sit
  • Body language
  • Do they appear shy or confident, a sheep, or a wolf?
  • What do they smell like?
  • Do they have a firm grip when they shake your hand?

Try to think of any way you could physically describe them. It would help if you could draw them, look up a person who looks like them, or even get someone to draw them for you.

Now imagine you and your character sitting down to have a conversation. They start it.

  1. What do they like to talk about?
  2. What makes them uncomfortable
  3. What do they sound like (pitch, tone, accent, slang, etc.)?
  4. Do they use their hands when they talk?
  5. Do they pay attention? Engage in the conversation?
  6. How intelligent do they sound?
  7. Do they swear?
  8. What does their laugh sound like?

Now you know their past, what they look like, and what they sound like. But you still have to know one thing. Who are they, deep down? It’s time for you to be them. Get into their psyche and experience the world from their point of view. 

You need to know what your character’s motivations, fears, and desires are. You need to know what they are hypocritical about, insecure about, and what makes them tic. Lastly, you need to walk in their shoes from beginning to end. 

The best way to do this is through action. So keep reading for some character development exercises that will get you inside your character’s mind.

Understand Personality and Psychology

What is the character’s personality? To answer this, you must understand what a personality is. So let’s keep it real simple, okay? Here is the definition.

“the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character”

Oxford Dictionary

That’s it. So let’s continue riding this simple train and look at some characteristics and qualities that your character could have:

Good CharacteristicsBad Characteristics
Has willpower
Communicates well
These are just a few of many examples

You also need to develop their internal psychology. Now this can be difficult if you are trying to attack it head on. So first, understand what it means to develop a character’s internal psychology. 

Psychology is the study of the human mind and its functions. The purpose of psychology is to understand why humans think, feel, and behave the way they do. There is so much research out there for you so you should utilize this to understand your character better. 

If your character has a mental disorder; use the DSM-V or ICD-10 as guide to understand the disorder better. You can also watch documentaries, or even read some research papers. One tip, please don’t create a “textbook” character. Meaning, every person is unique. People with mental disorders do have every characteristic listed in the DSM OR ICD. 

If your character has a physical handicap, read about it, watch youtubers or read blogs. Understand the mindset of someone who is new to the experience versus someone who was born with it, or has been “dealing” with it for many years. 

Regardless of if the character has a handicap or a mental disorder, consider the following:

  • Extroversion versus Introversion
  • Cooperativeness
  • Neuroticism
  • Conscientiousness
  • Open-mindedness

Learn more about what each of these are from Psyche.

Character development exercises

Now that you understand what personality and psychology are, use these character development exercises to create your complex character.

Journal as your character

Buy a journal that you think your character would like (you can even decorate it if that’s what they would do). Write a few normal days. Come up with important moments in their life (the ones that shaped them), and write about that event from their point of view. You could do it in present or past tense, or both!

Writing from their point of view will get you to see from their mind instead of yours. Really let go of your thoughts and only jump in when some creativity needs to be added.

Here are some different things to think about when you try this:

  • Write different points in their life. This could be different ages, good times, bad times, or reflective/vulnerable/angry/ecstatic/etc. moments. 
  • Do they talk about family, friends, pets? 
  • Do they have a wild imagination? 
  • Are they expressive when they write?
  • Do they think logically or emotionally?
  • Are they observant or oblivious?
  • Do they work? If so, what is their work day like?
  • Do they have hobbies? How into their hobbies are they?

Create Social Media profiles and join groups and forums

Use their name and find a picture of someone who looks similar to them. Fill out the entire profile with as much detail as you can. Then, find groups that they would be interested in and interact with those groups. See what other people are talking about.

This will give you a good idea of what your character likes to talk about. It also gives you a good idea of what topics they are knowledgeable about and what terminology they may use regularly.

Meet people with the experiences that your character has/will go through

How can you truly understand your characters’ pain or happiness if you don’t know what it’s like to be:

  • a mother
  • rich, middle class, or poor
  • an addict
  • a major baseball fan
  • a florist
  • a victim of abuse, rape, theft, or discrimination

No matter who they are, there is a real-life person who has been through something similar. As you discover who your character is, reach out to people with the same experiences and just talk to them about what it’s like.

Write an origin story before you write your book

This may sound daunting since you already have a book idea. However, this doesn’t have to be long at the start. It could be the length of a short story. 

Having some tangible item as your character’s background may be just the thing you need to elevate your story to the next level. It can serve as a safety net when you need to add more context or if you need to understand why your character is going to do something.

Plus, the bonus is that when your story becomes a colossal hit, loyal readers will die to get their hands on the origin story.

Tips for creating complex characters

As a last bit of advice, I have compiled a few additional tips that I have noticed other authors do in order to create complex characters. 

  • Base your character off of someone you know
  • Give your character multiple roles in the story
  • Write scenes where they are wrong and write scenes where they are right
  • Conduct a character interview like this one about Adelbehrt from Vengeance Of A Slave
  • Allow other characters to affect them through conversation

Examples of Complex Characters In Literature

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This may feel like a lot of information thrown at you all at once. Understand that writing a story is a journey. It is not meant to be done all in one go. Take the time to understand every element of your story. Doing your research and fully understanding the concepts of a story will help you and your reader.

One fun way to do research is to read books and watch movies. Here are some examples of complex characters that. Use them as a guide to add what you want to your character.

Books On Writing Characters

In addition to the fun books and movies above, here are some books on writing characters and two books that I find especially helpful if you want to learn more about the psychology of a person.

Let’s Talk About How To Make A Complex Character!

Today we went in depth with an ultimate guide that walked you through the following:

  • Why character development is important
  • Ways to write strong characters
  • Character development exercises and tips
  • Examples of complex characters
  • Books you can use to help you make a complex character

Do you have any questions? Let me know in the comments below!

With love,

Alexis M.

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