What Advice Do Literature Professors Have for Creating Complex Characters?


    What Advice Do Literature Professors Have for Creating Complex Characters?

    Crafting characters that leap off the page requires insight and finesse, so we turned to eight accomplished authors and writing experts for their best advice. From embracing characters' moral ambiguities to utilizing distinctive characterization devices, these professionals provide a wealth of strategies for creating complex, believable characters.

    • Embrace Characters' Moral Ambiguities
    • Consider Plausible Character Behavior
    • Develop a Character Bible
    • Treat Characters as Real Beings
    • Explore Characters Beyond Labels
    • Immerse in Characters' Inner Worlds
    • Illuminate Human Desires Through Characters
    • Utilize Distinctive Characterization Devices

    Embrace Characters' Moral Ambiguities

    Have a decent understanding of what makes people tick. People's present actions are informed by their pasts and their futures. Complex characters mirror real life. Their best qualities often correspond to their worst flaws. It was Solzhenitsyn who once wrote that the line between good and evil doesn't divide states or classes, but rather every human heart. To me, complex characters abide by this rule: they are neither wholly good nor bad. A flat antagonist is one-sided and created solely to serve an antagonistic function in a plotline. A complex antagonist might be a protagonist in their own story—and might even make the protagonist question his story as well. Ensure we understand why your characters are making their decisions, and how they ended up in your story. Include human flaws in each of them—and not just for show.

    Lauren Kay
    Lauren KayAuthor and Creator, Lauren Kay Writes

    Consider Plausible Character Behavior

    Think the character all the way through. How would they behave in this situation, in that situation? Is it really plausible? Is it like someone you know in terms of behavior? Start with the simple and build from there. Create so the reader can pretty accurately guess how the character would behave in a given situation.

    Chuck Martin
    Chuck MartinAuthor, Net Future Institute

    Develop a Character Bible

    Create a detailed outline or character 'bible' before you start writing your novel. Develop your own positive relationship with your characters and become comfortable with them before you begin to write. Show, don't tell; consider defining or refining characters using dialogue. Create solid backstories and make sure that characters do not remain stagnant. Whether growth is positive or negative, characters must transform or evolve through the course of the novel, particularly in response to the challenges or roadblocks that are thrown in their path. Above all, don't be stubborn. Feel free to tear things up and start over. Do not proceed until you are satisfied—if you're not feeling it, neither is your reader. Write and rewrite until you have created believable, compelling characters to your own satisfaction first. Good luck!

    Mark M. Bello
    Mark M. BelloAttorney/Author, Mark M. Bello Attorney/Author

    Treat Characters as Real Beings

    Treat your character as a human being instead of treating them as a fictional character in your story. Complex and believable characters all have a backstory, depth of character, and life experience. You have the opportunity to create some amazing characters who don't behave perfectly, surprise and fascinate the reader, and get them invested in a human who has flaws that make them interesting and full of depth. This makes for well-crafted and powerful characters and stories, which take the reader on a journey of how the character progresses, reacts, and grows as characters in your story.

    Rachel Bandara
    Rachel BandaraBest Selling Author and Transformation Coach

    Explore Characters Beyond Labels

    Dig beyond the label. Don't just say "hero" or "villain"; understand their desires, fears, and the messy contradictions that make them human. Explore their past, relationships, and how they react under pressure. Let them surprise you, make mistakes, and evolve through the story. Remember, real people are a blend of light and dark, strength and weakness. Capture that complexity, and your characters will leap off the page.

    Dr Haritha Lekha
    Dr Haritha LekhaAuthor and HR Associate, harithalekha.com

    Immerse in Characters' Inner Worlds

    To create complex, believable characters, immerse yourself deeply in their inner worlds. Envision them as living entities with rich backstories, diverse motivations, and a spectrum of emotions. It's crucial to explore how their past experiences shape their current desires, fears, and the choices they make. Delve into their vulnerabilities and strengths, demonstrating these traits through their actions and interactions. This approach ensures your characters are multidimensional, fostering a genuine connection with your readers. By focusing on the nuances of their emotional and psychological landscapes, you craft characters who are authentic and resonate deeply with the audience. Aim to reveal the layers of your characters gradually, as this complexity is what truly breathes life into them and captivates your readers.

    Rita Berry
    Rita BerryTherapist/Life Coach/Author

    Illuminate Human Desires Through Characters

    In real life, we seldom understand the reasons why we do what we do. That is why we turn to fiction for the answers to the whys and consequences of our actions. A writer needs to create characters who are 'us'—but 'more.' Observe, observe, observe all those who are around you, asking yourselves all the difficult questions. Then in your fictional landscape, shine light on the hidden desires of the human soul by creating characters who dare to do what we would or could not imagine doing. Create characters who trigger both our admiration and fear. Create characters who move through their fictional worlds with tragic abandonment and 'push' them until their journeys end with life-altering results that either make us cry or cheer.

    Laura Lush
    Laura LushInstructor, University of Toronto

    Utilize Distinctive Characterization Devices

    The one piece of advice I would give to authors trying to create complex, believable characters is actually two pieces of advice. First, recognize the enormous variety of human attributes and behaviors that are available to them as characterization devices, including distinctive and characteristic actions, gestures (small, habitual actions), objects (what’s in their pocket or purse or desk drawer), ways of speaking, ways of thinking, imagination (including dreams), physical appearance (including how they dress), physical experiences (body sense), other people’s responses to them, flaws, vulnerabilities, hopes, fears, and then look for those devices in published writing you admire, reading as a writer. Second (and this would be the one piece of advice I’d give if I didn’t think I could get away with two), recognize that what makes characters believable as well as interesting is their strangeness, the things about them (see the list of characterization devices above) that are somehow distinctive, unexpected, odd, either in isolation or in combination (contradictions are characterization gold), however normal or typical they might at first appear to be. Everyone is strange. Everyone.

    Lon Otto
    Lon OttoFiction Writer, Developmental Editor