Characters & Complexity

Recently, I had a bizarre moment. A person (we’ll call them Person #1) who has largely been kind to me–even going out of their way to be so–was portrayed by someone else (Person #2) as having a completely different, far less amenable side.

The tricky part of this was that I totally buy Person #2’s take. I trust their opinion, believing them when they say they’ve had this bad experience. But I also don’t think the kindness shown me by Person #1 is totally fabricated.

So it was throwing me for a bit of a loop, trying to square Person #1’s very-opposed-but-apparently-equally-genuine qualities. I kept thinking: “How can they be like this to me, then turn around and act like that to others?”

Here’s the truth, though: People are complicated, complex, mysterious creatures with shades of motivation, perception, and desire that can be difficult to impossible to untangle. Sure, some universals exist (at least among those not tormented by serious psychoses): We’re all selfish. We all want to love and be loved. We’re all afraid of something. We all see ourselves as the hero of our own story. But we can never entirely know what it’s like to inhabit another person’s shoes, because each pair of shoes is so marvelously unique. What to me looked like dissonance within Person #1’s character made perfect, logical sense to them.

I sometimes feel badly because I’m prone to the writerly habit of seeing the living, breathing people around me in character-terms. I pick up this person’s quirky gesture. I crib that guy’s unique cadence of speech. I tuck people into categories: courteous southern gentleman. Friendly, fun-loving party girl. Brash, bullying Type A father.

In some ways, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Being an observer is essential to being a writer. This means drawing from real-life interactions with people for your characters, in the same way you’d unapologetically note landscape, architecture, and culture during a trip to a foreign country, in case you wanted to set a story there later.

But the danger comes in being overly simplistic; this is an injustice to the people in your life, and the characters on your page. It’s a simple mental flip: going from seeing people as characters, to seeing your characters as people. But it’s also the dividing line between being unfairly reductive toward real people, and creating characters full of depth and complexity.

Of course, writers must be strategic in communicating this complexity. Whatever unexpected character-twists are incorporated, some kind of consistency must still exist. For one thing, a story is only a slice out of a character’s “life;” the author has only these few pages to make a compelling, convincing character, and too much deviation doesn’t make sense within this small framework.

For another, however real they may seem, characters are ultimately fabrications. They aren’t real people. (With embarrassing frequency, my husband has to remind me of this regarding my own characters.) Thus, their natures as artistic productions involve reader “convincing.” If we encounter a real person who seems inconsistent, we have no choice but to accept this changeability–they’re real people, making real inconsistent choices. We can’t dismiss them as non-existent simply because they seem variable.

But this is precisely what readers do with characters: too much inconsistency makes them “unrealistic” and “unbelievable.” This is sudden death for characters. To save them from this fate, at least one thread must wend through the character consistently, uniting even otherwise-unrelated choices. It doesn’t matter if this trait is bravery or greed, compassion or ambition. But this one thing cannot be changeable, if the varied tapestry of your character is to hang together.

If in our writing-art we’re able to capture some of the complex vivacity, the twisting intricacy, of the people around us, we will create three-dimensional, real, and resonant characters. And if one of writing’s major benefits is to act as a mechanism for opening readers’ minds to other perspectives and experiences, to inspire compassion and understanding, then cultivating realistic characters takes on even nobler proportions. For then it helps open eyes to the complicated, startling, and profound depths of the real people who surround us.

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