Lesson #68 Creating Complex characters

Before we dive into today’s lesson, I have a message to pass along from you from Kim. She’s been…hmmm…how do I sum this up? Kim spent a couple weeks in the hospital with various, terrifically painful conditions, and she’s not done having surgeries yet. There. That’s fairly succinct. She promises to have her lessons up soon, but right now she’s focused on taking the next breath without it causing more pain. I’m sure she’ll have much more to say about this when she gets back to work, but I’m not comfortable telling you her story. You’ll have to wait for her to get back for that.

In the meantime, let’s get to today’s lesson: Writing Complex/Layered Characters.

The bottom line, and the thing you need uppermost in your mind as you write, is that good characters always act out of a specific frame of mind in pursuit of a specific goal.

Let’s start with the goal first. If you haven’t heard of the book Goal, Motivation, and Confict by Debra Dixon, please go purchase yourself a copy right now.

Right now. I’ll wait.

Got it? Good.

Okay. Now read it. Yes, right now.

So, in short, the book says that every character, in every scene, must be pursuing their overarching goal. In a particular scene, the character may pursue a side goal, but it’s always in conjunction with the overall goal. For example, in the film “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy’s main objective after landing in Oz is to get back home. Every side goal, from following the yellow brick road to killing the Wicked Witch, is tied to that one, big goal.

This goal will be motivated by something that matters, something big, and something universal, like getting home to check on the people you love after a disaster.

And every goal that’s motivated by some big reason must have equally big obstacles to achieving it.

Kim Vogel Sawyer, when she teaches on this, sums up GMC with a simple sentence: The hero wants to _________________ (goal) because ___________________ (motivation), but can’t because _________________ ( conflict).

In the history of storytelling, the main goals of heroes haven’t changed all that much: get home, win the girl, eliminate the thing that’s terrorizing your loved ones, etc. What changes, and what keeps us as readers interested, are the characters, their motivations, and what conflicts they run into. The Wizard of Oz, The Incredible Journey, and The Odyssey are all about getting back home, but no one would say the stories have much in common beyond that main goal.

This difference in characters is what I’m calling their different frames of mind.

Complex, layered characters happen because the writer has dug deep into a character’s heart, learned what makes him tick and why, and then puts him in an untenable position until some flaw or lie he believes is exposed. In a comedy—in the literary sense, not in the “ha, ha” sense—the hero overcomes his flaw or confronts the lie, whereas in a tragedy, the hero is unable to overcome and ends up more entrenched in the flaw or lie that’s killing him either physically, emotionally, or psychologically.

There are books and books and more books written on how to create complex characters, so my best tip is to keep reading them until you find two or three (or ten) that connect with you. The two books which have helped me the most are Jeff Gerke’s “Plot vs. Character” and Brandilyn Collins’s “Getting Into Character.”

I’m going to try to condense a lot of information into a few more paragraphs, and I hope Brandilyn in particular won’t mind that I’m stealing some of her terminology. But then again, she stole it from the great actor Stanislavsky, so maybe I’m okay.

In what Brandilyn calls Secret #1, she talks about the Personalization Process. After you have determined the basic facts about a character—age, height, weight, eye color, occupation, and such—which she calls Level A, you have to dig deeper into what motivates them (Level B), and then dig even deeper until you find that character’s inner value which leads to a core value which leads to a trait and then to a specific mannerism based on that inner value (Level C). At this kind of level, you are asking your character questions like, “What is the defining moment of your life? Who do you hate more, a person who steals or a person who lies? And what would you lie, cheat, or steal to protect?”

There’s a rather famous maxim which covers this: Every man has his price.

What you have to do is discover not only your character’s price but why it’s his price.

In my novella “Waiting on a Promise” (The Homestead Brides Collection, Barbour Publishing), my heroine is Marta. She’s twenty, red-haired, and is too impatient to learn how to make a proper apfelstrudel (Level A). She’s motivated by the fear that bad things happen if she’s not around to personally prevent them (Level B). The defining moment of her life so far is when she left her father plowing in a field and he slipped, fell, hit his head on a rock, and died. One of the offshoots of this core belief is that she’s something of a hoarder. If she must be around to prevent bad things from happening, she also must have all the stuff she’ll need to make sure she can meet any challenge (Level C).

Her antagonist—meaning the person who causes her to change the most as opposed to the person who wants to do her harm—is her fiancé, Karl, a man who must do things without help from anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary. Put the two of them together and sparks fly. As you can already tell, Marta and Karl will be good for each other if she can learn to let go a little and he can learn to accept help a little.

And that’s the fun of the story…getting them past the “if.”

However, you can’t get there too quickly. People don’t change just because someone points out a flaw to them. I bite my nails. I’ve had multiple people tell me how bad nail-biting is for my teeth and how many germs I’m introducing into my body. When I was a child, my mother used to paint my nails with this stuff that was supposed to taste so horrible I would give up biting my nails. I licked it off. When I got older, I paid money I could ill afford to get those acrylic nails figuring that, if I could just break the habit for three months, it’d be broken for life. That was in my twenties. I’m over fifty now. I don’t think anything is going to get me over this one. But that’s because the price of biting them isn’t high enough yet. If you convinced me that I would die the next time I bit a nail, I’d probably give it up.

So why do I bite my nails? Why does Marta need to be on site to ensure bad things don’t happen? Why must Karl do everything on his own? And what is the price of getting us past our bad habits or lies?

Because, once you find the answers to those questions, you’re on track to creating characters with real depth.

With pen to paper,



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