Creating complex characters: with an apology for the examples used

First of all, I apologise. But I’m in my 30s now and I refuse to deny who I am, even on my blog!
I could go on for hours about the intricate and brilliant writing and wonders of the teenage mutant ninja turtles franchise… (sorry mum). And you know what? That’s what I’m going to do. Because towards the end of last week I said something to my mum that made me think; how have the writers managed to successfully (again) create four equally interesting and complex but different characters?

You might think it’s easy with the turtles. They were created 30 years ago, all the hard work has been done. But Michael Bay’s 2014 film proved how just how wrong it can go if you don’t put the work in, even with established characters. Or maybe because of the established characters.
The thing about the turtles is that each of them have the same basic qualities; loyalty, goodness, kindness and a certain morality (not to mention they all kick ass). Yet, each one is completely different from the other.

We all want to create believable characters. Characters that leap from the page and into reality. The way to do that is to make them like real people, and real people are complex. There are a few angles to look at when creating a character.

Say you hate TMNT memeInternal/external selves

We all have layers. Each person has an internal self and external self, the person they really are and the person they show to the world. How much these two sides mingle or differ from one another depends on the person.

The positive/negative voices

Have you seen the episode from the first series of Red Dwarf when Lister’s Confidence and Paranoia are made real? Yup, everyone has those two people in them. One voice in their head telling them they’re amazing and can do anything they want, and the other voice urging caution and telling them they’re rubbish. How loud those voices are, who wins the most arguments and what your character does about them is up to you.

Confidence and Paranoia Red Dwarf

Lister with his Confidence and Paranoia
Image from Red Dwarf Wikia

Fears and phobias

Everyone is scared of something. It might be something tangible or not. This could be anything, and it’s even better if there’s a story about it. There happens to be an episode of TMNT where the gang becomes affected by mutant mushrooms which causes them to see their fears. While Raph is terrified by giant cockroaches, Leo is forced to face his fear of failing as a leader and getting his brothers hurt.

If you’re after a perhaps stranger, but real, example, when I was six my family went to Florida (Disney, Universal, etc). We went to SeaWorld (this was before we knew…) and I became intruiged by how kids my age were acting. At the Shamu show all the young children were at the tank, noses pressed to the glass trying to spot the killer whales. Well, I was their age so that’s what I should be doing. And it’s what I did. Staring into that unnatural blue water I had a sudden vision of a killer whale approaching me at eye level (I didn’t actually see anything). Caught by sudden fright, I looked down. Big mistake. Because I was pressed up to the glass there wasn’t effectively a barrier between me and the bottom of the deep tank, littered with fish bones. Within the space of a minute I had developed a fear of heights and a phobia which resulted in years of nightmares about marine animals dying and rotting in their tiny tanks. And that’s why I can’t go to the top of that wobbly castle turret and why SeaWorld needs to change how it works.

So what is your character afraid of? Does this fear drive them? Put a good story behind the reasoning and you may just discover your plot.

Step away from the stereotype

Michael Bay, I’m looking at you. Donnie in glasses, indeed.
This is a well-known writing trick. Take something you love, but is perhaps overdone, and flip it round. If you find your character falling into the stereotype, again, flip it. I’m going to use Donatello as an example here. The smartest of the turtles, he managed to survive 30 years of the franchise being a genius mechanic and intellect without wearing glasses. The 2014 movie comes along and the writers seem to believe that all intelligent people are short sighted and scream at guns, even if they have a shell that will protect them.

They missed the point of Donnie. He is the nerd, the intellect, the brains who will not only design new technology and give an understanding of alien mutagen, but he’ll kick your arse, and he’ll do it with calculation and quick thinking (and a big stick).
It works. 30 years later and Donnie is still a fantastic character just because he doesn’t fit into this stereotype.

Donatello meme

Donnie in his 2007 form.

Put it all together

Once you’ve figured out the above sections for your character, put it together with your other character decisions. This should include what drives them, their passions, their outlook on life and their history (which ultimately will decide a lot of the other factors as everyone’s history shapes them).

If you manage to capture the internal and external voices of your character, along with their passions and fears, and confidence and paranoia, you should end up with some conflict. Conflict is something that every person carries them, whether they admit it or not, and that is what will make your character complex.

Of course this is all easier said than done. And now I’m off to stare at my own characters to see if they stare back…



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s