Writing Complex Characters Isn't Confusing

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

When referring to quality writing, you’ll often hear readers and writers say that a character is “complex.” It immediately sounds like a good thing, right? And it is!

As authors, we want our characters to jump off the page and invade the minds of our readers. We want them to feel alive, for their actions and decisions to have impact and consequences.

And, at the end of the day, a complex character will help you achieve those goals.

It’s not a guarantee for success—that comes down to a lot more than how complex your character is—but it’s a great place to start.

To get there, we’re going to chat about:

  • What we mean by “complex” characters
  • If all characters should be complex
  • How to create complex characters

I know we say complex, but that doesn’t mean this is going to be complicated or confusing. So let’s make sense of these intricate characters.

What Do We Mean by Complex?

Now we can’t figure out how to write complex characters without first knowing what they are.

Also known as a dynamic character, complex characters are multi-faceted, layered characters who change or grow. They’re more than one-dimensional, more than just one note or defining trait. There’s a variety of elements that go into creating complex characters, so it takes more than one paragraph, scene, or chapter to fully figure them out.

If you know your character archetypes (which are powerful tools for writers that you can read about here), you can also define complex characters as archetypal characters with at least one altered or added trait. So a Magician who must look after a dying family member or an Innocent with a dark past.

A complex character makes them more interesting to your reader. It’s a stranger worth getting to know. It’s someone we end up rooting for or against.

Should All Your Characters Be Complex?

In short, no, not all characters need to be or even should be complex.

Your main characters—protagonists and antagonists—should be. Generally, the more effort you put into making these characters deep and dynamic, the better they will make your book.

Secondary characters should be complex, although to varying degrees. You, as the author, should know their goals, history, etc., because it will influence their actions, dialogue, and thoughts. Your readers don’t necessarily need to know everything about them, though. Dumping exposition about secondary characters can be a slog to read.

Minor or tertiary characters don’t need to be complex. These characters are ones who only have a line or three in the entire story. They’re background characters who may hinder or assist the main and secondary characters, but they have no arc or journey of their own.

Adding varying degrees of complexity to characters is a valuable storytelling technique. Diving deep into one or two characters makes them hold your reader, while having less complex characters provides a sort of safe harbor from the tumultuous sea of the rest of your story.

How do you Create a Complex Character?

Now it’s time for the good stuff: how do we make a character complex?

Like I’ve mentioned, there are varying degrees of complexity when you’re developing your fictional folks. For your most important characters, I’d say use all the following steps. For secondary characters, feel free to flesh them out with all these steps while understanding not everything will be explicitly mentioned in your book (though it will all still impact their behavior).

1. Give your characters flaws

First up, some flaws.

Perfect characters are boring characters. No one wants to read about how great someone is at everything or how nothing challenges them.

In real life, no one is perfect, and you shouldn’t be writing perfect characters. Giving your characters flaws makes them more relatable while also giving them something to overcome. Characters who overcome obstacles to achieve their goals are much more fun to root for than someone who just breezes through struggles.

Flaws are divided into three types:

  1. Minor flaws, which are more like mild inconveniences or quirks that make your character stand out but don’t affect the story.
  2. Major flaws, which present an obstacle for your character to overcome and will impact the story.
  3. Fatal flaws, which is a trait that will lead to a tragic outcome for the person or those around them. As the name implies, this could include death.

If you want to brush up on your flaws or see a big ol’ list of them, check out this article.

2. Make them conflicted

Conflict is what turns a plot idea into a story. I’m not exaggerating when I say that you don’t have a story at all if you don’t have conflict.

But challenges, feuds, inner battles, and rivals all serve to make your character more complex, too.

Conflict comes in two forms: external and internal. For a complete breakdown—including the different types of each—check out these articles. For now, let’s look at these two umbrella terms and how you can use them to make a complex character.

External conflict is something outside of the character working to affect them, and often others, in some way. It’s the big war or the corrupt king. It's a competition for a promotion or a serial killer on the loose. External conflict is usually bigger than the character themselves (but that doesn’t mean it’s more important).

Internal conflict is something going on in the mind of a character that prevents life from being easy. It’s nailing the audition despite your anxiety. Or mustering up the courage to be a rebel leader, even when you doubt yourself.

These two conflicts are always tied together, often with the external forcing the characters towards some sort of internal conflict.

And it’s struggling with both internal and external conflicts that gives rise to an interesting character. If your protagonist knew exactly what they were supposed to do, were presented with no moral dilemmas, and faced little outside opposition, it wouldn’t make for an interesting character.

But those who must struggle or make a sacrifice to accomplish their goals are way more intricate and fascinating.

3. Allow them to grow and change

Through the aforementioned conflicts, characters are usually forced to change. We call these changes character arcs, and they come in a few different forms: ascending/positive, descending/negative, transformative, or flat.

In an ascending arc, the character changes to be a morally better version of themselves, ending the story “gooder” (it’s a word now) than before.

In a descending arc, it’s the opposite; a character is less moral than when they started their journey. Or “badder” if we’re keeping with the theme here.

Transformative means they have definitely changed, but their morals haven’t (think Katniss going from a normal District 12 girl to a revolutionary leader in The Hunger Games).

Flat means no change, which we aren’t particularly interested in for complex characters.

Change leads to complexity. If you have a character who starts one way and ends another, it means that events have affected them and they’ve responded in interesting and life-changing ways. 

Letting your character learn from or be influenced by obstacles creates someone people want to read about. If they met every challenge and stayed the same, that’s not very intriguing for readers.

If you want to get into the nitty gritty of character arcs, read this article.

4. Make their motivations clear

Also stemming from internal conflict, motivation is the reason why your character deals with their conflicts in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’m not trying to stop an evil wizard unless I have a darn good motivation.

Setting clear, realistic motivation is a surefire way to not just add reason to your character, but it gives you an opportunity to add more depth.

Okay, so your character wants to take down a drug cartel. Why? Because they want to do what’s right. Why? Because they were raised in a neighborhood where they saw firsthand what drugs can do and want to stop others from facing the same. Why? Because they lost their mom and best friend to overdoses.

One “why” isn’t usually enough to get to the real motivation. But notice how two more “whys” made a character a lot more interesting? And you can already start sympathizing with this character, even though you’ve received no other details about them. Your readers want that.

Read this article to become a motivation expert.

5. Give them a backstory

Even though your character only appeared in a story on page one (or later), that doesn’t mean their life started there. Unless your opening scene is their birth, which I can’t see working for the vast majority of stories.

The more you know your character, the more you give them an actual backstory, the more equipped you are to craft them into living, breathing things for your readers. Giving a character a past reinforces their motivation and sets up their relationships with others.

So what happened to them before page one? What events have shaped them? Who has come through  their life and who have they lost?

All of this adds layers and dimensions to your character.

If you’re struggling to get to know your character’s better, one of the best ways to add a backstory is to interview them.

Your Characters Should be Complex. Your Writing Tool Shouldn’t.

I hope you’re coming away from this article not only understanding why complex characters are important but how to make them as deep and intricate as possible.

Readers expect a lot out of us authors, especially from our characters. You run the risk of ending up on the DNF pile if you can’t meet those expectations.

To make that easier, let me introduce you to the last novel writing platform you’ll ever need: Dabble.

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It also gives you the ability to write anywhere, on any device, and automatically backs up your work to the cloud. Not only can you rest assured that your hard work is safe, but you can be ready whenever inspiration strikes. 

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Heck, you can even write in the shower, as long as you have a trustworthy waterproof case (or you’re very confident in your phone’s water resistance).

Clean yet powerful, Dabble has everything you need, with user-requested features being added all the time. And we don’t even ask for your credit card to get you started on a fourteen day free trial, because relying on you forgetting to cancel is kind of scummy.

So get started with that free trial by clicking here and bring those characters to life.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.