Complex Characters: It's not that complicated

How to write complicated characters

You want your characters to be relatable but more than a two dimensional cardboard cutout from Macy’s. So how do you do it?

This part of writing is more art than most of writing. You’ll need to experiment and share your writing with your writing group.

A complicated (or dynamic) character is one that is fully developed. He/She is capable of demonstrating a full range of emotions. They develop as the plot unfolds and many sides of their personality are exposed as they interact with different characters.

These are the key elements for a complex character:

  • Emotion

  • Interaction

  • Personality

  • Plot development

For a writer to utilize the above elements means that they know their characters deeply. And I mean deeply. As a writer, you are the therapist that all your characters turn to. You know them almost as well as you know yourself. Once you know your character, you can write them into circumstances that force them to express themselves.

Conflict is Key

Conflict is best way to demonstrate a fully developed character. In fact, complex characters cannot exist without conflict. It breaks the two dimensional mold of “character types” we’re used to seeing and makes your character stand out.

How will he/she react in the face of terrible odds? Will they succumb to temptation? Do they thirst for vengeance? What sacrifices are they willing to make?

A Simple Example of Complex

Think about your favorite characters: Luke Skywalker was a farmboy who sought adventure. He vowed vengeance for his murdered aunt an uncle. But when he discovered his nemesis was actually his father, his goals changed. He wanted to save his father from the Emperor and the darkside of the force.

Moreover, the character complication was weaved into the plot. Luke’s relationship with his father is why he was spared by Vader in The Emperor Strikes Back. His strong sense of redemption was how he ended up on the Death Star in The Return of the Jedi.

And think about the other characters Luke encountered in his journey: his brush up with Solo at the end of A New Hope. Think about how he struggled to overcome the realization that his father was the most evil man in the galaxy. Consider how he clashed with his uncle who wouldn’t let him leave the farm. All these interactions with different personalities brought out a little more depth to Luke’s character.

Writing complex characters can be difficult, but if you ask yourself the right questions (or write questions) while writing, you can nail this thing.


A few takeaways for your writing:

  • How well do you know your characters?

  • What conflicts are your characters encountering?

  • How are you writing about portraying their emotions, interactions, and personality?

  • How does the plot develop with your character?

Jonathan McCullough