We all agree that complex characters are good. Where we writers screw up is the damn challenge of creating them.
Say you’re beginning to think about a character. How do you add complexity? Or have you botched it already? Is complexity at a character’s core, where the creative process of the writer begins?
Here’s what complexity isn’t.
It’s not a list of traits. “Here’s my character = job + hobbies + height/weight/eyes/hair + family + place of birth + romantic relationships + …”
Details don’t make a character complex. Neither does the presence of a single all-powerful motive or all-consuming characteristic. “Ruthlessness” maybe, or “lust for power.”
No – that character would be 100% predictable and 100% dull.
Here’s a picture of character complexity for you:
That’s the yin-yang symbol. Yin and yang are opposite forces, like light and shade, or male and female, coming together. I’m not going to get more into the religious meaning than that – but I am going to borrow this thing to remind me about character.
A complex character is a balance of opposite characteristics or identities. My all-time favorite example is (don’t laugh)… Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer.
Joss Whedon dreamed up the character – a school girl (that’s one characteristic) who slays vampires (that’s the other). Now stop and think about it.
That’s the character. Nothing else. But that idea drove a movie, then seven seasons of a television show, followed by an eighth “season” in comic book form… and writers aren’t finished with her yet.
Buffy will sweat over her history homework… then drop her pencil and battle a nest of vampires. She’ll save the world from a soul-eating demon, then she’ll worry about senior prom. These reversals always come as a surprise – the audience never gets used to them.
It sounds ridiculous… and it is. Buffy’s yin-yang drives, essentially, all the humor of the TV show (and if you haven’t seen it… it’s funny).
But a character’s yin-yang complexity isn’t just for laughs and witty reversals. Fans of Buffy know how tortured she is – you see, she wants to be a school girl, she yearns for a normal life, she hates the crypts and the undead gore… but she also knows she’s chosen to be an epic warrior, blessed with strength and speed and the power to save people’s lives.
It’s the same inner conflict Peter Parker struggles with in Spider-Man 2 – hero vs. normal guy.
After humor and surprising reversals, this intense agony of inner conflict is the other gift of a yin-yang nature.
These sorts of characters are fascinating to us.
Darth Vader is a black-suited, faceless villain (worth hating, but not thinking about) until he reveals that he’s Luke’s father… and gains complexity (heartless villain vs. compassionate father). And that inner conflict needs a whole third movie (Return of the Jedi) to play itself out.
And Luke (farm boy vs. Jedi)? And Harry Potter (orphan vs. wizard)?
Let’s stop screwing around: Shakespeare’s character MacBeth’s yin-yang is pure ambition vs. guilt – that drives the whole Scottish play.
This last example comes from Robert McKee in Story. “MacBeth is a brilliantly realized character,” McKee says, “because of the contradiction between his ambition on one hand and his guilt on the other. From this profound inner contradiction springs his passion, his complexity, his poetry.”
McKee’s word for the complexity of a character is “dimension,” as in “three-dimensional character.” He says it right out: “Dimension means contradiction.”
I’m going to cite one more example from McKee to wrap up this post.
“Consider Hamlet, the most complex character ever written… He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To Ophelia he’s first loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash, as he stabs someone behind a curtain without knowing who’s there. Hamlet is ruthless and compassionate, proud and self-pitying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, sane and mad. His is an innocent worldliness, a worldly innocence, a living contradiction of almost any human qualities we could imagine.”
(Does this remind anyone of Holden Caulfield?)