Deeping your characters: What is at the heart of a complex character?
Ha! That's a great question, Cory! It's an important question, and probably one any writer should know. Let's see what Goldberg has to say on this subject. Actually, there weren't any actual chapters devoted to character development. However, there were several bits and pieces of different chapters that I felt offered good advice on details. Details about places, things, people, psychology, etc. All of these go into a complex character, in my opinion. Here are several quotes from Goldberg and my thoughts on each.
...use original detail in your writing. Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.The chapter this came from was one on details in general. She mostly talked about taking in details of things and places around you and transplanting those real details into your writing. By doing so, it causes your imagination to build on the original details, allowing itself to come up with imagined details as well. I think this is important in developing a complex character as well. We all feel and experience life in different ways, and those feelings and experiences are real. I would venture to guess that even a person with the simplest life is complex in some way. Maybe they have a turmoil of emotions that they can't deal with. Or maybe they have a secret in their past that is the basis for how they think and act now. Whatever it is, it's real. So why not use that, your own experiences and emotions, to feed your imagination for your characters to development deeper layers?
Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and al winters we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived.This quote was especially powerful for me, but also raised a couple of questions. First, I think Goldberg eloquently states kind of what I just discussed above, or at least I took it to mean that. We should use what we know, what we feel, who we are, and everything that makes us to pour into our characters. Goldberg goes on to talk about how it's not just us we should pay attention to, but everyone. People matter. People exist and they love and hate and feel sadness and joy in different ways. They have different backgrounds and families, schooling and friendships. We're all different. Observation and understanding are a writer's best friends. Not only should we draw on ourselves, but we should draw on others. By using the idea in the first quote (transplanting original detail) we create characters based on bits of people, allowing our creativity to open up and creates layers of our characters that we might not have known existed before we started thinking of real people.
This isn't to say that any of my characters are based on real people. They aren't. I don't know anyone exactly like Fred, Aeron, or Olivia. But I do know people who have certain qualities that each of them hold, myself included. I also know that bits and pieces of who I wish I could be are in each one of them. Some of their experiences are based on my own and those of others I've talked to. Others are based on observations with my own imagination there to fill in the motivations for their actions.
I'm not saying any of my characters are complex. In fact, sometimes I worry that they are pretty superficial. But, then I think about some conversations I've had with friends and all the introspection I've done to try and figure out why I am the way that I am, and it brings in new ideas. My characters jump out and say, "Hey! That happened to me!" And it goes into their complexity I guess. To me, characters should feel real, even if they are fantastical. There should be something real about them. When I go up and talk to someone at a party, it's never as simple as my saying "hi". There are always things going on in my head, reasons I wanted to talk to them, insecurities about having to mingle in the first place, memories about the last time I did something similar and it turned out badly. Just like people, characters should have motivations for what they do, how they feel, how they act, and those are based on everything that's happened to them before they came to the page.
Maybe none of this made since. Really, I'm not sure it even makes sense to me. So, you tell me (and the rest of us since this IS a series), what do you think is at the heart of a complex character? How do you create complex characters yourself? If you're not a writer, what makes a character "complex" when you're reading?
And don't forget to check out the other writers participating in this blog series!!
- Cory Jackson: Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream
- Kate Hart: Stephen King’s On Writing
- Jamie Blair: Janet Evanovich’s How I Write
- Laura McMeeking: Natalie Naimark-Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
- Debra Driza: James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure
- Leila Austin: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
- Sarah Harian: Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey
- Jennifer Wood: Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing