The Complex Character

I heard a lot from readers who don’t want to read a too-perfect (sympathetic) character. Maybe the words “sympathetic” and “likable” need defining for fiction.
Writing Tip for Today: In fiction, a sympathetic character only means this person is someone whom readers can identify with. Likability may not be as important, but memorability is essential. Here are some other things to consider in creating complex and compelling characters:

  • A “likable” character may be facing situations we ourselves have faced. A memorable character is someone who we’d like to be, who deals with big things in a larger-than-life way. Donald Maass calls this “characters whom readers like to imagine as themselves.” Hardly anyone is truly John Wayne, but plenty of folks wish they were like the characters he portrayed.
  • Likable doesn’t have to mean flawless. Vulnerability can come from different areas of life–problems with money or the opposite sex are familiar themes. But in ways that really count to the reader–such as that moral code, loyalty to someone or a group or self-sacrifice, this character must be strong.
  • Sympathy for a character should begin on page one. I imagine there are exceptions, but for all except very skilled writers, the protagonist who starts off repulsing the reader is going to have a very steep road to winning the reader over. This is because readers won’t hang in there until this less-than-sympathetic character grows some virtues. Many readers “become” the character as they read. If your protagonist is truly awful, consider letting a secondary character narrate the work. We can stand to be Ishmael, but most readers are not interested in being wacko Captain Ahab for a very long book.

If your main character could be more sympathetic or likable, try making lists of that character’s strengths and weaknesses. Answer some questions, such as: What is character most afraid of, both emotionally and in life? What does character long for more than anything? Try to identify and then balance the inner and outer conflict for this character. Good luck!

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

1 comment on “The Complex Character

  1. Likable doesn’t have to mean flawless- excellent advice.

    I love the character who has a strong moral code and is faced with a situation that calls that code to task.

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