3 Steps to Make Your Character Complex: Flat vs Complex Characters

Complex characters: Characters are the soul of the story.

My most-read article in this blog is How to Develop a Character and there’s a reason for that.

You can even hate the plot, it can be full of stupid clichés that no one can handle anymore, but if you fall in love with a character, you’ll keep reading it.

This happened to me with Christian Grey, I’m afraid.

The story was absolutely… hard to like (euphemism, and I’m sorry if you like it). Christian is abusive, Ana is CLEARLY not into it. However, I read it all. I was addicted to the character.

I invite you to think about a story that you didn’t like that much but you were addicted to the characters, so you couldn’t let it go.

I bet you can think about some.

Even a simple plot of boy meets girl can become extremely interesting if the boy is great and the girl is better.

I bet you’re sitting there saying: I already know this all. But HOW to make a complex character?

First, let’s see what Neil Gaiman has to tell us about a flat character:

What is a flat character?

A flat character is the opposite of a round character (or complex character).

It is a character that has only one or two motivations.

They don’t offer much to a story, because it’s very easy to read what they want.

There’s not much conflict.

They want to… save the world. Or, to get the girl/boy. They don’t show contradiction, trauma, or anything like that.

You don’t want a flat character.

What is a complex character?

A complex character is basically the opposite.

They have a goal or motivation, they go after it, but there’s a lot of conflicts involved in it. There’s a contradiction in what they want and what they SHOULD want.

In his class, Neil Gaiman gives us the example of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

Clarice Starling relies on serial killer
Hannibal Lecter to help her catch another killer in
Silence of the Lambs (1988). But beneath her apparent
repulsion for Lecter is an equally compelling admiration
for him which comes to border on obsession. It
is safely justified by a professional need to understand
him, but that unconscious desire… (O6. Neil Gaiman Masterclass Material)

Clarice can’t admit to herself her desire to be friends with Hannibal. She says she is there only professionally… but she clearly is hiding something. Even to herself.

This is how you make a complex character.

Think about humans, maybe even yourself.

Let’s go to another completely different area: romance.

You keep telling yourself that you’re just friends with that boy or girl. You want to go to their home JUST TO DO homework or something. You don’t want to date. You’re perfectly happy with your single life.

But if you are being honest to yourself… you really love them. And this scares you a lot. The boy or girl might be “forbidden”: they are your sister’s or brother’s friends, you might have a partner already, they might be your high school enemy.

This is where a romance plot is born.

Let’s move on to fantasy:
You want to save your city. You know you want. On the other hand, this city was always been terrible for you. They bullied you, they didn’t help you when you’re starving after losing your parents in a car crash. You started listening to the villain’s motivation: “they are the bad guys, not us, they want to destroy humanity because humans are really bad. We kill each other, we let our species die in wars, we are destroying the environment.” But then, you, as the hero, are sitting in the park and see a family having a picnic. Everyone is happy. The little girl there fills you with hope. We always hope for better times.
But we always hate too.

We are humans, we are complex.

How to make a complex character in 3 steps:

1. A character needs conflict to be complex. They can be conflicted because they want to do good and save the world, but deep down they believe that the villains ARE RIGHT: humans are garbage. But he keeps the faith that it will get better. This faith must be tested. CONFLICT.
You can read here how to add conflict to your story.

2. Goals: we all want many things. When we choose a path to follow, a lot of other paths exist as well and we are giving them up. Choose some conflicting goals for your characters. They want something that is light and something that is dark. They can lie to themselves about what they really want. They keep following their “good choice goal” blindly, even though the pulsating desire of going in the other direction is still there.

3. Character motivation is revealed by their choices. People usually choose what they think is better (for them or for the world, but mostly for them). Even if they know that it might be bad, they try to convince themselves that it’s the best choice. A villain doesn’t think they are doing the worst thing; they can know that what they are doing is bad, but they will always try to convince themselves that it’s the best thing to be done (even if it’s kill humanity so they get rid of the human plague).

Writing Exercise

Try to create a complex character by writing down two opposite things they should want.

One of those things has to be perceived as “good” (like saving the world, but it can be something much smaller like lending money to someone they like).

The other thing has to be perceived as bad (not lending the money because they want the money to themselves).

When a character wants two opposite things, you have conflict.

Put them through conflict and watch their choices. This will reveal a complex character.

But, remember, they always try to convince themselves that they are doing the best option.

The most important thing is to always remember: characters are people. And people are confusing.

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David Korabell
David Korabell
4 years ago

Remember that conflict is not merely on the surface. Conflict drives a story, but not simply the conflicts that are easily seen but those the reader has yet to be aware of and still further to fully understand. They are conflicts within characters, within groups as well as between characters. These conflicts can spawn still further conflicts.

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