OK, first as regards the computer problems: They are tearing down and rebuilding a house just down the street from me, which evidently was the cause of the problem. Unfortunately, the work is ongoing…and on top of that, they are going to start tearing down and rebuilding another house just up the street from me come Monday. So there may be more interruptions. I will try to get stuff written and scheduled early to allow for possible difficulties, but life is always crazy and it may not always be possible. Now, for todays’ writing post:
Complex characters are, according to a bazillion how-to books and web sites, highly desirable for fiction writers. The alternative, we’re told, is writing flat or cardboard characters, which everyone knows is a no-no.
And which is actually not true. One of the most likeable, memorable characters I’ve read was a viewpoint character who, as a child long prior to the story’s start, had suffered severe brain damage and as a consequence was mildly to moderately disabled intellectually. She was not a complex character in terms of her personality (though one could perhaps argue for a complex background); in fact at one point she told her therapist cheerfully that she had “less pieces of me than other folks do.” But she was most definitely not flat or cardboard, and she’s stuck in my head for years, long after I’ve forgotten the plot and the author of the story she was involved in.
Which leads me to this: the opposite of a complex character is not a flat or cardboard character; it’s a simple character.
Simple characters don’t necessarily have fewer pieces than complex characters; it’s more that for a simple character, all the pieces point in the same direction, while for a complex character they point in different directions. A simple character is one you (or the reader) can safely take at face value. They don’t show up looking in control and put together, and then later reveal that they are secretly a mess and barely holding things together. If they look like they’re in control, they are; if they’re a mess, the reader (and the other characters) know straight off.
Complex characters, on the other hand, have a tangled knot of motivations, and everything from how they present themselves to how they act and react in the course of the story can change, depending on which bit of knot things are bouncing off at any given moment. They can look like a mess, but under stress reveal a core of steel, or appear in control of themselves only to fall apart when things get tough. This makes complex characters much more useful to writers, in most cases, because they are more flexible – the writer can get many different reactions from one character by adjusting the circumstances.
This does not mean that complex characters act at random. They are still supposed to be people, which means that there is some underlying unity of character, however deep one may have to go to find it. Unfortunately, in the rush to create “complex, well-rounded, realistic characters,” some folks lose sight of this.
I read a manuscript last week in which the author appeared to have just this problem with one of her secondary characters. The particular character was in a position of authority, which she exercised judiciously and well in regard to one of the main characters, but which she came near to abusing as regards another main character. If you looked at only one plot thread at a time, all of the captain’s actions made sense – the author had worked in enough of the character’s backstory to explain why the captain acted as she did in each case.
What the author didn’t do was to explain why the two, very similar, cases evoked completely different behavior – sympathy, help, and understanding in one instance; obstructiveness, anger, and a refusal to even try to see a problem (much less solve it) in the other. The reader was left wondering why the good reasons from the character’s backstory that made her help Character A didn’t also apply to Character B, and vice versa.
There were two ways the author could have fixed the problem and had her complex character work. The first would have been to choose a completely different subplot to replace either the help-character-A or the hinder-character-B plot. Having the captain be very helpful to A, but not entirely ethical and accurate when it came to reporting his expenses, or angry and obstructive with B, but secretly funding a shelter for homeless families, would have provided a complex character without the jarring problem of why that character is nice to one person we like and nasty to another person we like, when she seems to have equally good reasons to be nice/nasty in both cases. Cheating on expense reports and funding a homeless shelter are things that are far enough removed from being nice/nasty to a particular person that they don’t create a major mental conflict when the same character does both.
The second way the author could have fixed the problem was to make a greater distinction between the two cases. If there had been more of a difference between Characters A and B, or a bigger difference in their situations, then it would become much easier to explain the difference in the captain’s behavior. To pick an extremely obvious possibility, if A is polite and defers to the captain’s authority, but B smarts off, then it is a lot easier to see why the captain would respond in kind, especially since she already has those backstory reasons.
No matter how complex a character gets, they still need to be internally consistent. And it isn’t enough for a character to be consistent within a subplot (unless that subplot is the only place the character appears); the character has to be internally consistent across the whole story.