Vicki's Book News and Articles

Complex Characterization

Written by Vicki Hinze

On October 18, 2006

Warning: this is a no-edit zone…

It’s a tried but true analogy–complex characters are like onions. What you see on the surface represents but one layer of a person, and from but one perspective. So how do you delve beneath the surface to reveal what’s at the core? And must you do that?

The second question, first. In a word, yes. You must expose the facets of the human being to make them three-dimensional and real–like human beings. Otherwise, characters will be flat, cardboard, and hold no depth.

When you consider that the reader attaches to the character and relates to him or her and lives the story events through him or her, you can see the value of truly knowing that person from the inside out. If you allow the reader to emotionally attach on one level, you’ve limited his or her experience. The multi-layered bond deepens that connection and strengths the bond, hence reader satisfaction. And reader satisfaction more intensely conveys the author’s reason for writing the story in the first place.

So how do you delve into the layers of a character?

First, you don’t reveal all layers at once. No human being exposes all of who they are to anyone at one time–and often doesn’t do so in a lifetime. There are two reasons this happens, and neither has to do with hipocracy or deceit:

1. A single person wears many hats.

2. A single person perceives another single person one way.

Many hats. A character might be weak, come across weak, exhibit weakness. Yet we later learn that s/he isn’t weak but appears so for a specific reason. Perhaps exhibiting this behavior nets specific gains. Perhaps it permits someone who truly is weak to appear stronger. Perhaps on something specific this character is weak–it’s his/her Achilles’ tendon. Yet the layers s/he exposes to others are very different. Strength and determination are what this second person sees. Let’s look at an example.

A woman seems weak and vulnerable to her female friend because she tolerates verbal abuse at home. Later in the book, the woman’s boss attempts to railroad her into taking blame for something she did not do and the woman refuses to take that blame. Still later in the book, this woman refutes an authority figure who is trying to take advantage of someone important to her.

Now the friend might only see the woman wearing the hat where she takes verbal abuse. She might have no idea that these other aspects or character traits exist in this woman and well might be shocked by them. She could learn them through events during the course of the novel, or she might never know them.

But the reader does come to know them. Those layers are exposed to the reader through different people or through the woman herself as she reacts to situations that arise around her. And in these relevations, the reader will also learn what motivates this woman to wear these different hats.

Perhaps her husband isn’t verbally abusive, he’s medicated for a medical challenge that impacts. Perhaps the reason is a defense mechanism he projects as a direct result of the woman’s actions. Perhaps the verbal abuse is a creation in the woman’s mind that she reveals to certain people to establish an alibi or to manipulate a perception she wants planted for ulterior motives. Or perhaps he is abusive and the woman feels trapped and unable to break away from it. It’s the devil she knows and she would rather endure it than be alone.

The key to complex characterization is in motivation.

Perception. No two people see any one person in exactly the same way. We do have general perceptions about what we think is good and acceptable and traits we don’t want to incorporate into our lives. But people aren’t general, they’re specific. And while certain traits are fairly consistent from person to person interacting with them, others are vastly different.

Take two women looking at the same third woman. Woman #1 sees the third woman as caring with a rough but kind countenance and voice. Woman #2 looking at that same third woman through her own eyes, homes in on different traits. Her eyes are those of a woman whose mother was a singer in a club. Her mother abandoned her husband and two daughters for another man. Now when this woman #2 looks at our third woman, she’s more apt to say or think (thinking is more honest and blunt than speaking) “She works in a bar and dresses like a homewrecker.”

Who’s right? Could be either one. Could be neither one. Or it could be that they’re both right. The key isn’t in perception–though that can motivate actions. Perception can be skewed. People can be misunderstood; misconceptions can run wild. The key is in motivation. In knowing why a character puts on the specific hat s/he chooses to wear at a given time with a given person.

Look at your mother. How does your father see her? Your brother? Your grandmother? Your uncle? Her in-laws? Her neighbors? Her friends? Her professional associates? Those involved in her personal affiliations? Her church?

Look at yourself. How many different hats do you wear? Why?

Onions. Many layers, all honest and real. All there for reasons–some of which are known and some of which might be unknown to the character herself until a realization moment in the novel, but revealed to the reader through character motivations.

There’s a four-part series on creating unforgettable characters in the library on the website ( It covers the basics and deep characterizations. But if you’re into the short version of things, then just remember the onion–and that exposing its layers can produce eye-sting. Eye-sting in a reader is a good thing.



Vicki Hinze


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