Monday 24 June 2013

The Complexity Of Complex Characters


A glass slips out of Mr A’s hand and smashes on the floor. He sighs and sweeps up the pieces and then gets another glass out of the cabinet.

A glass slips out of Mr B’s hand and smashes on the floor. He lets out a howl of rage and stamps the pieces into dust under his feet.

The different reactions of these two men are both perfectly plausible. But in this case both men are the same person. The only difference is that these two events occur on different days when Mr A-B is in dealing with life in different ways.

Again, perfectly plausible. We all have our moods. We all have good and bad days.

However, in fiction, having characters react in a variety of ways to more or less the same stimulus will make them appear to be acting out of character. But when is it distracting and unnecessarily convoluted, and when is it a reasonable depiction of the richness of human interactions?

Readers like to feel they know who a character is and often the way this is achieved is by limiting the way they behave.

The best friend is reliable and supportive; the bad cop is always up to no good; grandpa is always complaining. If you reduce a character to one or two characteristics it’s much easier to get a handle on who they are and what their role is.

The problem with this approach is that it’s simplistic and unrealistic. While you can get away with it in stories aimed at a younger audience or designed to deal with a very specific (and narrow) view of life, as soon as you expand the story into something resembling real life those characters are going to feel like cardboard cutouts.

Filling out a character with a range of possible reactions can end up being confusing and messy. When the character in question is a major one this problem is usually avoided by dint of spending so much time with them. Chances are we will see what has caused them to shift from one mode of behaviour to another.

Not only does this avoid confusion, it also helps reinforce the narrative. If something terrible happens in the previous scene and then in this scene the character is not her usual self, then it shows that events have had an impact.

What is trickier to pull off is when it’s a minor character we don’t see that often. If we don’t see the transition from one state to another, it can seem the character is some kind of schizophrenic. A good writer can smooth over these transitions using foreshadowing and hints to the cause of the change, but in some cases it’s important to the plot that the reasons for the change in behaviour not be revealed yet.

If Quiet Mary is always softly spoken and shy, and then in one scene she becomes very sarcastic and confrontational, there may well be a very good reason for this change, but if the reader doesn’t know what it is, it can come off as bad writing and poorly realised characterisation. And in many cases that turns out to be exactly what it is.

If the writer needs a bit of drama in one scene, why not just have a random character stir things up?

That’s why readers are often not keen to just keep reading and see how things turn out. They’ve been burnt before.

To the writer it may seem obvious that it’s all part of the story and things will become clear shortly, but the reader doesn’t know that. And it can continue to be distracting even as the story continues. The next scene may be set somewhere completely different with other characters, but the question of whether something happened to Mary or if she was just written in a loose manner can keep the reader from remaining fully engaged with the story.

An easy way to put the reader’s mind at rest is to have a character within the story comment on this uncharacteristic behaviour.

Two characters can mention it to each other. A character can point it out to the character in question. Or the character can make the observation about themselves.

The observation can include an explanation of the behaviour, but it can also be just noting the change and wondering about it. Or an explanation can be offered that turns out to be wrong.

It depends on the circumstances and the writer’s preference. No one way is necessarily better than another. The important thing is to show the odd behaviour has been noticed. This allows the reader to move on with the story knowing the change is part of the story and if it isn’t explained now it will be dealt with later.

This works for any sort of deviation from the traits you’ve established for a character. Readers don’t expect characters to be one dimensional, in fact I think most would prefer them not to be, but sudden shifts (at least from the reader’s perspective) can be jarring. A simple acknowledgement that it happened is often enough to keep the narrative flowing.
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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So don't show a strange fit of rage without other characters noting that it's unusual.

cleemckenzie said...

Quirky, out of character behavior is difficult to handle in fiction. I guess that's why so many books are published with predictable and sometimes flat characters. I have to admit I'm very careful about going too far afield when I'm revealing characters.

mooderino said...

@Alex - unless you can show the transition happen or covey it another way.

@C. Lee - the really extreme changes will probably make the reader feel there must be a reason behind it. The more intermediate changes tend to be more baffling because you're not sure if you were meant to notice it or not.

Sarah Foster said...

I think if you know and develop your characters well enough, their emotions and reactions will always seem natural given the situation. You just have to be sure this is just as clear to the reader.

mooderino said...

@sarah - that's usually true of main characters but harder to do with secondary characters who might pop in and out of the story. They tend to be the ones that seemingly change without indication.

Unknown said...

An thought-provoking post. On the one hand, your character's action needs to be "in character," but as you noted in a recent blog, it's the character's actions that give us a sense of his/her personality. I like your suggestion here of making sure that someone notices and comments on the unexpected behaviours ... which then sets the stage for some great scenes!


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Hannibal Lecter was very complex and worked in much the same way nearly every time you saw or interacted with him in the books. Will Graham caught him that way, because he'd examined the psychology of Hannibal so completely, he recognized him for the monster he is from a book on his bookshelf.

Alex said...

I agree that consistency in characters is crucial. In my fiction, I often try to express complexity through interior thought; in a sense, this is true to life. Many of us act in the same way, day-to-day, and repress our complexities. We might feel complex on the inside but on the outside we fulfill the norm.

Thanks for the post! Very thought-provoking.
-Alex (

LD Masterson said...

Foreshadowing the change in behavior sometimes works. Having a character notice something is a little off in another character's expression, voice, manner, etc. can prepare the reader for unusual behavior.

nutschell said...

Great post. I hate it when characters have a sudden change in personality--without any warning or explanation. It helps when the author drops hints and clues that things are about to change.

Sarah Allen said...

Very, very helpful way of looking at things. As usual.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

mooderino said...

@Mary - cheers.

@Mike - it's very rewarding when you can see the complexity.

@Alex - it's one of the advantages of novels that you can go inside the character's head for an added dimension.

@LD - foreshadowing definitely helps smooth the transitions.

@nutschell - it can be very confusing.

@Sarah - cheers.

Melissa Sugar said...

I get easily turned off to a book when a main character appears to be suffering from schizophrenia, ( unless of course she really suffers this mental disease). I enjoyed your post. I am working on a character right now ( not the villain of my story, but she is an antagonist), and I don't want the readers to immediately distrust or suspect her so I've started her off as somewhat normal. My hope is for her to unravel througout the story and as time goes by and the more pressure and anxiety she feels from the protagonist catching on to her wrongdoings, the harder it is for her to keep up her fascade. I want readers to slowly recognize that she is not quite who she appears to be and that she is hiding a deep secret. I'm having a somewhat difficult time pacing her actions and reactions in a manner that allows readers to at first think something is off and then as other clues unfold the readers begin to question her sincerity and truthfulness. I need for her to go from a clever and devious woman fully capable of disguising her true self . She is cold and calculated but she is such a skilled deviant that she is able to make others sympathize with her and view her as a victim, all the while casting doubt and suspicious on her intended targets. As my protagonist closes in on her crimes and manipulations, this woman feels her world crashing in and for the fist time fears being exposed and as a result she becomes careless. More importantly, however is that her entire persona is different as her true self rises to the surface.

I'm glad you wrote this because I'm currently struggling with how to show her other side, gradually and then with full force without the readers finding my character unbelievable because she is doing and saying things completely opposite of how they know her. Whew! That was a mouthful. I hope it made sense . I hope I was able to throw my problem out there in a way that made sense to your readers . I'd be grateful for any input that you or the other readers have.

mooderino said...

@Melissa - with a major character, time spent with them will hopefully help the reader see the change and understand the cause of it. It's a tricky thing to balance and lots of published writers get it wrong. You can see where things are going well ahead of the curve. Taking your time (Breaking Bad is a good example of a big change) is the best way but not always an available option.

I think as long as you're aware of the issues, though, you have the best chance of making it work.

Melissa Sugar said...

Thanks I appreciate your response and the Breaking Bad example .

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