Create Complex Characters Through Roles

Do you have problems creating nuanced and complex characters?

Have you been writing an important scene but find yourself (1) sick of the character acting the same all the time, (2) find the character’s action/attitude don’t fit this moment but you aren’t sure how to change them, or (3) you just aren’t connecting with this character anymore (and are secretly thinking of killing him off).

Yeah, me too.

One of the favorite time management techniques I learned in a leadership course years ago was to schedule time by the roles I played in my life. I know this post is about character development and I’ll get to that in a moment, so bear with me. It will all make sense, I promise!

Writing down the roles I play in my life, writer, wife, daughter, employee, and setting time aside for each not only made me elevate each as important so that none were ignored, it made me think about who I was in each of those roles. I don’t act the same as an employee as I do as a wife. I change to fit the environment and expectations so that I can succeed in each.

We all adapt to situations and the surrounding environment. Because people are complex.

complex characters

Not a flat character!

That is why reading a story where characters feel flat, as if they are missing some key ingredient to give them a spark, is a negative, or at least neutral, experience. Readers want characters that seem real. Some authors are awesome at developing characters, some put in a lot of effort to create a well-rounded character, and some authors … well, we wish they’d have worked on it a little longer.

It can be hard to develop an awesome character. Trust me, I know.

I’ve filled out interview sheets, bubble charts, you name it. All while attempting to reach the essence of an obstinate character. I made lists of weaknesses, childhood traumas, positive and negative attributes, habits, and food allergies. Some characters are difficult to crack.

I didn’t understand my first truly difficult character, Ty from Born of Water, until I wrote a brief short story about what he was doing right before he entered the novel. You see this pain-in-the-butt, emotionally volatile, and very defiant teenager was returning home to save his sister.

But confessing what he’d done, and now had to save his sister from, left him wanting a drink. Except he couldn’t face his father’s disappointment if he showed up drunk. Oooh, his roles of pain-in-the-arse normal, being a brother, and being a son were all in conflict.

Insert lightbulb here

complex characters

I might have had a hard time understanding Ty, but I think he has a hard time understanding himself too.

Characters have roles. Just like us. And their attitudes, reactions, and intentions will adapt with the role they are playing. A leader will treat her band of heroes differently than she will her son. Or she’d better. Because scolding warriors you are sending into battle or tossing her toddler son out the door with a sword just aren’t going to fit. Sure, a few key aspects like humor or compassion might stay the same, but words, tone, and stance will differ.

A villain can be a compassionate father. A warrior is also a daughter, a lover, and a young-adult confused about her role in the world. Every character will shift in attitude and actions depending on the role s/he is playing and NOT just over the course of the character arc. Because character arcs are also designed to show a character overcoming (or failing to overcome) weaknesses to, hopefully, bond the reader to the character.

But this technique is different.

It took my obstinate character Ty, and allowed me to understand other aspects of his personality when he wasn’t full of foolish bravado. To his sister, he was over-protective, sweet, and lied like hell about where he’d been and what he’d been doing. To the Water Priestess Nirine, who reminded him about a few things he was trying to forget, he was cold and fought her desire lead their little group. Even though she was totally the best person to do so.

complex characters

How he acted and adjusted to each role revealed aspects of his character. It made him more whole and realistic. So the next time you have a character that just isn’t forming well, ask yourself

  • What is the primary role of this character?

  • What traits does s/he rely on to fulfill this role?

  • What past/recent roles has this character played? (girlfriend, apprentice…)

  • What were her/his predominant traits then?

  • What other roles does s/he have now?

  • How does her/his attitude change to fulfill them?

Changing how we act to fit a situation is often referred to as putting on a different coat or hat. And why not? I felt that way when I put on my nicest clothes for a work presentation, or how I act different when wearing a dress versus jeans and sandals. It is like wearing a different mask. So why not characters?

Explore who your character is not by weaknesses and strengths, but how they manage to juggle the many aspects of who they are and who they are expected to be.

What do you think? Does this unlock an aspect of one of your characters? Tell me who and what roles your character plays in the comments!

And don’t forget, if you are looking to shortcut your world building, check out my new FREE world building cheat sheet!

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  1. I have written a short biography on Each of My Characters, but only my MC is fully expounded. I’m not sure the bio is complete, but, in light of this Post, I’ve tried to deepen it. I think I’ll post it to ‘writers assembled’ and ask for comments on how real the character appears to be. Thanks for the ammunition to give Gladriel some actual life, now all I need to do is put this person into my books, in place of the flat one who now occupies that position. 😀

    • The secret is, Victor, we all learn more about our characters after we finish the book! Writing this post, I understand Ty better as well as a few of the other characters peopling Myrrah. At least it helps with the current book-in-progress! 😀

  2. Pingback: Writing Links 2/13/17 – Where Genres Collide