Monday Motivation: Notes on writing complex characters
We’re tempted to write characters who have a single, focused goal: they want to triumph over their enemies; they want revenge, they want X, or Y, or Z to the exclusion of all else. They are, in a word, monomaniacal…
In doing this we commit a singular error which results in a profound misreading of human nature. By seeing our characters in binary terms, we ignore all the messy stuff that makes them truly human.
There are, according to this model, winners and losers. You either best your opponent (the man who humiliated you in front of your peers, say), or you live forever in the shadow of that shaming. You either win the hand of the woman you believe was destined to be your life’s partner, or you are condemned to eternal second-bestness with a woman you cannot wholly give your heart to.
Forgive me a brief philosophical ramble: In what we might loosely call this Trumpian world that I’ve been sketching, there are good guys (people like us) and bad guys (the rest). The good guys have to keep the bad guys at bay, if they’re to live safe and prosperous lives.
Since “the rest” comprises most of humanity (there are, after all, only so many members of that exclusive club of “people like us”), your best bet is to erect walls between people like you and the world – walls consisting of, well, walls, but also more stringent entry requirements for asylum seekers, would-be immigrants, and, indeed, temporary sojourners* – tourists and workers on short-term contracts.
This is bad thinking, of course, since the world is not one that is easily divisible into “us” and “them”. And people are rarely defined in terms of a simple, central goal.
In fact, we all have multiple goals. Maisie and Merle want to secure their own, and help their children secure, their futures. Jim Jones over there wants that – but he also hopes to expand his collection of Ming dynasty ginger jars. Irene Pappadopolous wishes fervently to scatter her father’s ashes on Milos, the island of his birth.
We all have large life-defining goals, and more modest goals that might shape the contours of a day every week or two.
All of these goals help make us the complicated people that we are.
And so, dear readers, the same logic applies to complex fictional characters.
It’s true that Moriarty might only seek the overthrow of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle trots him out to foil the great detective, and when he’s done that, he pushes him back into his closet. He’s a two-dimensional character.
And of course, there’s lots of room for two-dimensional characters. They’re the secondary and tertiary beings that populate the background of most stories.
But we owe our central characters more than that. We owe them the right to seek multiple goals. These goals can be magnificent and unobtainable – like world peace – or they can be small and even ridiculous, like laying hands on that final elusive miniature KLM Dutch porcelain house to complete the collection of all ninety-six.
Our goals define us – just as they define our characters. Ludicrous goals make us figures of fun. Serious goals lend us gravitas. A wild mix of goals makes us difficult to define – and interesting.
So when next you’re thinking about your protagonist, think in terms of her goals.
* This was the phrase that the apartheid Government described black South Africans working in our cities. Tolerated while they were useful to “us” – but otherwise banished to some far-off homeland when they weren’t.