The Complexity of Character

I have posted about character before, but then again, so has every writer. Characters are key, believable characters are what make good books great, they are what create memories and that important reader-fictional-character-I really-care-about relationship. Without believable characters, we are not drawn into their world, we are not made to cry at their pain, nor rejoice in their moments of triumph, and when that is taken away, books are just words on a page… dead and meaningless. We may as well read a textbook, at least there is a chance we might learn something.

When I read through my novels, at any stage, be it chapter review, revisions, post edit read throughs, the one thing I always look at, and feel the worst about are my characters. Why? It’s not because I doubt my writing.. or at least, not only because I doubt my writing, It is because I know how complex the human character is. It is impossible to truly capture it, and so when I know that parts of what I am writing, can never be truly captured, it makes me pay extra attention to make sure I get as close as possible.

I was reading an article written by the wonderful, and amazingly talented Les Edgerton the other day. It was in fact a series of articles that talked about character and dialogue. He said that in real life, people never talk straight, we often talk around things, and thus say what we want through not saying it. I read the article two or three times in a row, and I realized that while I often like the way my dialogue comes across, I was always having my characters say what they meant, or what they wanted. I forgot about the natural flow of conversation. Needless to say, in the final chapter of the Diaries of the Damned, I will be experimenting with this dialogue approach. So far I am really feeling the extra depth that it generates.

This approach does make my characters richer, and for a few days I was actually walking around thinking that I was getting there, that my characters were pretty realistic… and then, I went on an easter egg hunt (and yes, I have been meaning to write this post for two weeks).

We were standing there with the kids, waiting for the hunt to begin, when I a woman arrived and stood next to me. Her kids were running around nearby, playing, and in the space of about three minutes, I watched and listened as this woman had no less than five different conversations with different people, and displayed five different personalities in each. Ranging from an incredibly forced smile and happy greeting, to genuine friendship and through to a cold and almost comical brush off.

In those few short moments, it became painfully clear to me, how difficult it is to capture a person’s character, because we don’t have one. We have many, and it depends on who we are, where we are and who we are with. There are so many variables that we need to consider. Every person we meet has the same problems as us, everybody is in the middle of an argument, is broke and worrying about money, everybody is in love, and in denial, we are in trouble and flying high, all at the same time, without even knowing it. Character fascinates me, and I love nothing more than just listening to people, but that…

is a blog for another time.


3 thoughts on “The Complexity of Character

  1. Alex,

    You’re quite right in that characters are very important to a story. Without characters having different qualities about them, it just wouldn’t make for a good story.

    Each story I write begins and ends with characters in the forefront. I never write a short story or novel with a plot in mind. I just make up characters, and THEY tell me what they are going to be doing. Plot happens as the characters deepen, in my opinion.

  2. Great post Alex. Your insights into character and dialogue really made me stop and think about what we really mean when we say someone is acting ‘out of character’. I wonder if this is also the root cause of so many relationships breaking up – i.e. the inability to let the other person change and grow, and perhaps become someone else.

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