How to Write Complex Characters

At the heart of any good story lies a compelling character. The plot cannot exist in isolation from the characters, and without an interesting protagonist for the reader to follow it can be impossible to be engaged with what happens.

But creating complex characters is easier said than done. In this blog, you will find out how to write your own well-developed character.

Why are complex characters important?

Having a complex character means that readers are interested to find out what happens to them, and it compels them to continue reading their story. A flat character, one with no unique features and defined only by cliches, offers no incentive to become invested in them.

With a complex character, readers will want to see whether they overcome any obstacles in their story and find some sort of outcome to their difficulties, whether or not that means a happy ending.

A silver fountain pen laid on a blank ruled notebook.

Features of a complex character

There are several aspects to consider to help craft your protagonist, beyond more superficial elements such as their appearance and name. These should be well thought out in order to ensure that the character is well-developed:

  • Want – this is something they believe they need in order become fulfilled, and something that they strive for over the course of the story.
  • Need – this is what they’re not consciously aware of, but it’s the truth that will bring them true fulfilment.
  • Motivation – what gets them up in the morning and the fundamental idea they hold.
  • Lie – something which they believe at the beginning of the story that they slowly come to realise isn’t true.
  • Ghost – something that haunts them and reinforces the lie, therefore having to be overcome.

Ways to write strong characters

There are different approaches you can take when creating a complex character. You could start with one, or combine them all. 

Plot their character arc

Complex characters aren’t just static, they change in reaction to events and other people around them. Typically, a protagonist in a novel will have a character arc that corresponds with the structure of the narrative. By the end of the story, they’ll have undergone a change.

This isn’t always the case – it’s possible to have a flat character arc – but either way you should consider how they develop through the story. 

Identify one fundamental part of their backstory

One simple way to make a complex character is by picking out a single pivotal aspect of their backstory that influences their personality and behaviour. This could be a childhood trauma that still afflicts them, or another defining moment that made them reconsider their outlook on life.

These key events could be included in the first act of your story, or they could only be referred to briefly. Alternatively, you could completely exclude any visible acknowledgement of the event, and instead only hint at it through subtext with how your character reacts to certain triggers.

Consider how their story should end

Stories aren’t simply about plotlines. The protagonist’s story is vital to making the narrative interesting, and deciding where they should be at the end is a useful way to know how to develop them.

If you know what happens at the end, during a pivotal, climactic scene, then you can plot out how they can get there. Decide on the acts the character takes and how their backstory influences them, then take it from there.

Establish their most interesting relationships

Your main protagonist shouldn’t be created in isolation. Like anyone, they should have a series of relationships with other characters, whether that’s friends, family, coworkers, or others.

Pick one or two relationships at the core or their character and how this impacts them. This could be one with an ailing parent who they have to look after. It could be a colleague who they feel belittled by. Or maybe they meet a stranger who compels them to think differently about the mundanity or their daily routine.

Exercise for creating complex characters

In order to craft your own complex characters, there are a few useful exercises you can try out to help:

Fill out a character sheet

Character sheets provide an easy place to fill out all the required information you need to know about each of your characters. 

This can include basic information like name, date of birth, and place of residence, along with more detailed elements of their backstory. You might even include sections that will help to plan a character arc, such as outlines of their wants and needs.

Role-play different situations

One other method that can be most productive to help you understand your characters is by putting yourself in their shoes. This is a technique for later in the process when you’ve already got a few ideas of how they should behave and think and now need to flesh them out more.

Think of situations both familiar and unfamiliar to your character. How would they act during a family dinner? What would they do if they were lost in a forest by themselves? What would they think if they came face to face with a ghost?

The aim of situations like these is to help uncover elements of their character that you may not have considered before. The way they react in specific circumstances can bring to the surface aspects which will make them even more complex.

Interview them

Similarly to role-playing, you can also put your character on the spot in the form of an interview. Ask them a question, and then imagine what answer they would give.

How they answer it is just as important as what information they answer, so questions can range from the mundane “How was your day?” to the difficult and existential, such as “Do you believe in life after death?”

Depending on the question, and what sort of character they are, they should give different answers and react in different ways. They might be standoffish and wary of seemingly being interrogated. Or they could be happy to talk freely and excited that someone is giving them attention.

Join our mailing list

Subscribe to our mailing list to stay up to date with our latest news and blog updates.


Character development is necessary for readers to become truly invested in the narrative, so make sure not to overlook the importance of making the characters in your story complex.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *