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Writing Tips : Creating Complex Characters

by Velda Brotherton

We are all a maze of inconsistencies, but we do produce a dominant impression.  When constructing characters, don’t load them all up with the same dominant impression. Instead, build each character in a unique way.

Some dominant impressions are: dignified, cruel, sentimental, sexy, flighty, rowdy, dull, bright, etc. Each of these can be hiding the true self. For instance, one may be dignified, but he could lose it when specific things happen to him.

Does dignity hide stupidity? Does cruelty hide naivete?

Try to figure out the dominant impression of some of your writer friends. Ask them what yours is. This helps us learn more about creating characters.

Creating our characters is sort of like drawing some stick figures in a sketch pad, then adding faces, hair, then moving on to personalities, weaknesses and strengths. What motivates her, and again what does she fear and what does she want?

Don’t say: “Oh, she wants to marry the hero and live out on the hill above town,” or “She wants to go to the prom with the football hero.”

You are telling me what your story line is.

What she might want is to find a cure for cancer, or discover a new animal species, or something as simple as make her parents love her. This defines her character.

The main thing to remember is to get to know your characters very well, but don’t spend hours and hours writing down everything about them and making endless charts.

Work with them for a while as if they were real, get acquainted, live with them for a few days, then begin to write.

BEGIN TO WRITE: Ah, we’ve reached that point, so a few more things are important.

TAGS: Four categories 1. Appearance – hair color; 2. Speech – stutter; 3. Mannerism – shuffling feet; 4. Attitude – apologetic.

Go to the expert Dwight Swain. He says that these tags should be used frequently throughout the book so the reader can always tell one character from another. But use them in action or showing, not in telling.

Example: Don’t write: Her hair was black and long. Write: She tossed a lock of black hair off her face and smiled.

Don’t write: He stuttered. Write: Excitement colored his features, but he couldn’t get the words to come.

You get the idea.

For a novel you will likely create at least two major characters. In most genres the story will belong to one of them. Don’t add more secondary or minor characters than are needed to tell the story. The remainder of your cast, so to speak, may only have first names and one piece of general description. Like a bald bar tender, a bearded cab driver, etc. And their tags will be very few.

Remember, your main characters should grow and change. Only psychopaths and sociopaths are all bad. Only saints are all good.

THEY HAVE A SECRET and it will be hinted at but not revealed till near the end of the book, at least not before the climax.

And most of all, they must charm the reader, enthrall him with a desire to find out what will happen and how the character will survive.

Some information from Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, a book every writer should have. It's available online at Amazon.

Velda Brotherton has a long career in historical writing, both fiction and nonfiction. Her love of history and the west is responsible for the publication of 12 books and novels since 1994. But she's not about ready to stop there. When the mid-list crisis hit big city publishers, she turned first to writing regional nonfiction, then began to look at the growing popularity of E Books as a source for the books that continued to flow from her busy mind. Those voices simply won't shut up, and so she finds them a home. Read more at

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