Developing Complicated Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot about Aroldis Chapman. For those of you who don’t know, he’s the star pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. Most believe he’s the reason the Cubs won the World Series this year. Watching him pitch is thrilling. I mean, he throws a 105 mph ball. His strikeout record is through the roof. Gifted athlete.

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And yet also, there’s this: Chapman was suspended for 30 games last summer. Because he allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired shots at the garage door during an argument. Abusive partner. Moreover, in an interview with the New York Times, he maintained he’d done nothing wrong.

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What does this have to do with writing?

Everything. Because readers connect to flawed characters like Aroldis Chapman. Sometimes it’s because of the guilty pleasure of schadenfreude. Better you than me, pal.

'You're loving this, aren't you?'
‘You’re loving this, aren’t you?’

Other times it’s feeling sorry for someone who’s down on his or her bad luck. Or cringing at the train wreck of someone’s bad behavior. But mostly it’s because we want to root for people. Why else do we (or maybe it’s just me!) talk to the characters in our books or on the television? “Don’t go in the water! The shark is there!”

We like to root for people because of course, we’ve all made regrettable choices too. And we all hope to be loved and appreciated anyway, in the hopes we’ll do better next time. Real people are complicated, messy, layered, fragile. They lie. They lie again to cover the other lies. Their choices are motivated by ego, pride, selfishness, the secrets they keep, mistakes they’re trying to rectify, people they’re trying to protect, however inexpertly.

For example, Han Solo. Because everyone needs a little Han Solo in their day.

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At first, Han was motivated by the need to pay off the debt he’d been ducking. His choice to ferry Luke and Obi Wan is what launches the rest of the story — and it’s definitely not rooted in nobility or heroism, even though ultimately he becomes both of those things.

I’m a plotter, so I’m going to tell you the best way to craft strong, compelling, therefore flawed characters, is to plan them before you write them.

As you plan, remember that important or transformational moments in your book should result as often as possible from choices your character makes. And those choices should not always be “the right choice.” When they flow naturally from who your character is, they won’t always be smart. But they’ll be true to your character. And fixing those mistakes will be part of your character’s arc.

My system for programming these choices isn’t elegant, but it works for me. First, I sketch my character(s), using all the best advice to help me develop who they are. Goals, motivations, habits, weaknesses, tics, backstory. What they want and how they change.

Then, as I put together my beat sheet, I sketch each plot point with a choice. And the choices don’t always have to be major – that would be exhausting to read. Even minor choices keep us moving forward.

For example, Walter White.

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The first choice he made, which launched his story of a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin, was based on love. He was dying of cancer and wanted to ensure his family’s security after he was gone. Heartstrings.

But along the way, as he evolved into a far less sympathetic character motivated by power, he made little, off-the-top-of-his-head choices too – like calling himself “Heisenberg” – that ultimately became part of his legend.

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Whenever you find your characters reacting, ask yourself, is there a way to make this action a result of a choice? Sometimes the answer is no – totally. Like, a volcano buries their hometown, and a family must rebuild. Or, a civil war erupts and your character must flee. Or fight. But all that comes next must be rooted in choice, so that we can keep rooting for your character.

I’m curious to know if you’ve come up with other ways to ensure your characters are flawed and realistic? How do you plan for their failures and choices?

Heather Capps