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The Two Challenges of Writing Complex Characters

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Regardless of what you may imagine, we writers tend to subconsciously insert bits of our own psychology into our books. Whether it be the main character’s parents dying in almost every novel (guilty), or perhaps you imagine your jerk brother every time you write in a particularly sarcastic character’s point of view (guilty again). Because you will undoubtedly place bits of your own personality (as well as the people around you) into your novel, you should recognize this and surround yourself with these particular individuals as often as you find necessary. Is it a celebrity that has inspired you instead? Or perhaps a fictional character from another book or TV show? Watch that celebrity’s interviews, read that book again and again, or watch episodes of that same TV show a thousand times if you have to. In doing this, you are able to empathize and connect with the character in your mind, allowing you to think alternately to make the character come together in the unique way that you had imagined.

This isn’t always enough, however, and oftentimes we are faced with the trial of creating a character from scratch. As difficult as this can be, there are only two major obstacles that you will have to surpass. This will be the first time that I will use excerpts from the novel I’m currently writing, so forgive the length of this post, but I feel that it is important to give examples with your advice, and so I will show you exactly what I mean while I help you to give depth to your characters.

  1. Describing The Character

Giving a detailed description of any individual that you introduce to the reader is a must. Without this, the reader has very little to go off and, if their imagination isn’t as powerful as yours, they may not be able to put a face to the name. This leads to disinterest, as the reader cannot become fully engaged and connect with the characters, and a lack of interested readers means no demand for a sequel.

How to Do It:

First, don’t bring all of your goodies in one basket. In this sense, I simply mean that you shouldn’t give every detail of a character immediately as they are introduced. Space it out a little. If I were to type out an introduction for my main character, Enora, for example, I would not type all of her physical attributes in one paragraph. That would be boring. Instead, this is how I chose to introduce her as she made her first appearance in chapter 2:

            Enora dipped her scrubbing brush back into the bucket of soapy water before using it once more on the stain. Despite her vigilant scrubbing, the blood remained as dark as it was the night before, and Enora sighed, stopping for a moment to wipe her brow with the back of her arm. The wooden floors were old and a little rough, making the stain nearly impossible to remove. She could scrub and mop all she liked, but the color simply wouldn’t lift.

            “Try it with this.”

            Enora looked up to see her guardian and friend, Maggie, leaning over her and holding out a jar of cloudy liquid. Enora took it, removed the lid, and gave it a good whiff. Her nostrils and throat instantly burned and her blue eyes began to water. Coughing, she quickly moved it away from her face, holding it at arm’s length.

“What is it?” she wheezed.

            “That’s a concoction my mother taught me long ago,” Cleans up any stain, doesn’t matter how deep.” Maggie straightened her small back, but continued to look down at Enora. “You do a good job around here, Enora, and I appreciate the help.”

            “I’m glad to help, Maggie,” Enora said warmly, pushing damp and disheveled blonde bangs from her eyes, “I’ve been here for almost half my life, so I owe you quite a debt. If it weren’t for you, who knows where I’d be now?”

            “Well, you might be better off, you know,” Maggie replied gravely, “I could think of many things that would be better for a young girl than growing up in a brothel. Not every child cleans up after whores and finds herself to be frequently surrounded by dirty-minded old men.”

            Enora chuckled. “I could think of many worse fates,” she contradicted, “I earn my keep is all. And you’ve never asked me to lay with a man, Maggie, so the dirty-minded men are more like drunken uncles to me.”

            “Yeah, if drunken uncles pinch your ass.” Maggie laughed, her beautiful green eyes crinkling at the corners.

Not only did I give you a general depiction of Enora, but I also managed to slip in the description of another character while I was doing it (Maggie). This excerpt is stretched over a couple novel pages, and so the reader will not bogged down with details, nor are those details so spread out that the reader can’t put them together in his or her mind.

  1. Developing Character Personalities

Sometimes we have to make our characters suffer for the greater good. Sometimes they have to witness or take part in things that we would personally avoid like the plague. The reason for these sufferings (and even the joys) that the character experiences are paramount to creating their personality and bringing them closer to the reader. If you can’t think of any troubles for the character to experience that will pertain to the plot line, let me give you a tried and true method of my own: When in doubt, kill it with fire.

For this example, I will actually provide two different excerpts from my book (mainly because they are my favorite scenes that result in crispy critters):

A) He stood there, alone in front of the large mob, tied to a post and surrounded by branches and kindle for his own execution. Looking around him, he recognized several faces in the crowd with a wounded pang; the local butcher, the wise blacksmith, the woman who bought his mother’s magical poultices and herbs… all rallying now for his death. He trembled, beads of sweat and tears sliding down his face as he looked once more to his mother – needing her to comfort him this last time, despite his sins against her.

            But the crowd grew bored with his lack of response to the executioner’s question, and they once again began to shout and clamor for his demise. Before Mandil could react to the hatred that he heard in their voices, however, the executioner had picked up his torch and quickly lit the kindle with one sweeping motion.

The fire spread rapidly, consuming the kindle within seconds. It grew until it found the hem of Mandil’s cloth robe, and then it grew more, climbing up his legs and consuming him in its heat. Mandil screamed so loudly that his voice cracked, but the pain was more than he could bear, and so he screamed louder and louder still until his gasps for air drew in only oily black smoke and his tongue had boiled in his throat. His flesh bubbled and blackened as he wheezed out the garbled remains of his cries and, before the flames had died, Mandil was reduced to nothing more than a crumbling pile of scorched flesh and bone tied to a wooden post.

            His mother screamed then, a long and terrible cry of dismay. She dropped to her knees and sobbed loudly, reaching out to the air before her with both hands for her only son as he continued to smolder in the center of the clearing. The crowd soon began to dissipate, having lost interest once the execution had ended and the flames had died out. The knights, too, had left her to her anguish, having already had their amusement with her while the square had been prepared for her son’s execution.

Soon, she was alone in the clearing. She knelt there, in the dirt, for many hours, watching the smoke rise from her son’s corpse. She didn’t speak a word, but her eyes had hardened from her grief. Her bloodied face, no longer devoid of emotion, had taken on the countenance of one who no longer had anything to lose, but might have found something to gain.

While reading this, the reader may experience feelings of empathy or pity for the mother, as well as dismay and horror for Mandil, bringing them a larger sense of understanding as they watch his mother make her next moves in the novel. If that wasn’t enough to quench your blood thirst, however…

B) (chapters later, and far away from the brothel in my earlier example)

Enora slowly undressed and climbed between her sheets as her groggy mind recalled the niceties of the evening, and she gave a final sigh of contentment before drifting off into a peaceful slumber. Her dreams were nostalgic, and fond memories played through Enora’s mind as she slept, giving her a sense of ease that she hadn’t felt in many years.

            As she slept, however, Enora’s brows suddenly drew together in distress as loud shouting erupted from the courtyard outside her window. She opened her dreary eyes and saw bright orange and red lights dancing along her walls, casting dark shadows that flickered around the large room. The shouting continued as she pushed her blankets away and slowly rose from the bed. She walked to the window to investigate and, looking down onto the courtyard below, she felt her pulse quicken with a dreadful sense of shock.

            A great fire had claimed the better half of the large yard, engulfing the makeshift temple of the Old Religion in its entirety. Part of the structure’s roof had caved in, as well as the entrance, and Enora watched in horror as the building’s inhabitants broke the stained glass windows and began to claw their way over each other, desperately trying to escape the flames that consumed them.

            Men and women of both religions clamored in panic through the yard, desperately trying to make their way to the celebration hall to seek refuge. Guards and volunteers frantically stomped on the grass or threw buckets of water to extinguish the blaze, but the flames roared higher into the black sky, and the rest of the small temple’s roof caved in with a loud snap. Enora reeled away from the window, unable to watch as the shrieking victims were crushed by the impact.

            She snatched her dress up from the floor and hastily pulled it over her head with shaking hands. Not bothering to find her slippers, she ran from her room and took the spiraling steps two at a time before sprinting down the long hallway that led to the main corridors of the temple. She tore around a corner, her bare feet slipping on the carpet, and ran down another hallway. She had nearly reached the doors to the courtyard, eager to help those who fought the fire, but a hand quickly shot out and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her to a sudden stop and almost causing her to fall backwards.

            “There you are.” It was Galain, and Enora was instantly shocked and frightened by the fear that she saw on the warrior’s typically impassive face. “You need to come with me,” he quickly added, keeping a tight grip on her arm. He didn’t wait for her response, but began to walk quickly in the opposite direction, dragging her along behind him.

As you can see, there are multiple ways to experience the same horror. You’ve just mentally watched a man burn in front of his mother, and you also witnessed hundreds of people die in a burning building. Near the end of the book, you will experience the same horror, but through the eyes of the victim, rather than an observer (people seem to love burning other people when religion gets involved, but don’t worry about repetition; these don’t even scratch the surface of the many deaths that take place in this novel, and I assure you that I have been quite creative). The more detail you use, the more of a personal experience the reader will get, and the more they will connect with the characters that are directly involved and/or affected.

So there you have it: how to add depth to your characters’ personality growth, inevitably creating very complex individuals that the reader can love, hate, and understand. I hope that these examples have been helpful and, if you’re writing something of your own, feel free to leave a comment with any questions or advice that you need to help you on your way.

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Posted by on August 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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