AJ Pearce on Writing a Complex CharacterApr 10, 2022
There’s nothing that brings fiction to life like complex characters. To read them is a joy. But to write them… That can be a little trickier. How do you make characters memorable, three-dimensional? How can you make them feel real?
AJ Pearce is here to help! The Sunday Times bestselling author of Dear Mrs Bird and Yours Cheerfully, both part of The Emmy Lake Chronicles series, AJ knows a thing or two about creating complex characters. Her novels have been published in more than twenty countries, and she is a British Book Awards and Royal Society of Literature Sir Christopher Bland Prize nominee.
We’re also thrilled that AJ is a sponsor of The Octopus Scheme, our scholarship program here at The Novelry.
Why should you write a complex character?
Writing complex characters and getting to know them is one of my favourite parts of working on a story. It’s where I start, where I go back to if I get stuck, and where I know I can have fun.
The better I know my fictional characters, the more real they feel and the easier it is to write for them. Dialogue flows more naturally, their actions feel authentic and push the story forward, and if the storyline does get sticky I know it’s because I’m not writing something good enough for my characters to want to engage.
Tips for writing a complex character
So, what does character development look like when you craft complex characters? How can you ensure they’re really interesting and fully formed?
Here are my top tips for writing dynamic characters:
Find out what matters to them
Spend time with characters to understand their complexities
When appearances matter
Explore backstory to write a complex character
Use characters’ surroundings to develop their complexity
Own something real
I hope you’ll find these interesting! If they’re new to you, and you’re feeling stuck as you try to create believable characters, they might be worth giving a go.
1. When crafting characters, find out what matters to them
If you really want to make a character complex, you need to give them a deeply rooted motivation. Uncover this and you’re halfway there.
Finding out what really matters to my characters is at the centre of everything they (and I) do. Characters’ motivations are the key when you’re writing fiction.
What or who do they love? What are their triggers, their vulnerabilities, the things they believe in or cherish the most? If I know that, then I can try to write a story that means something to my characters, and by extension hopefully to my reader.
A while ago I wrote 50,000 words of a novel, increasingly struggling with it until I realised that what I had thought would mean the world to my main character, just didn’t.
Heart in mouth, I stepped away from my laptop and spent a day talking to myself about what and who mattered to my protagonist.
I looked back at some scenes and saw that one in particular had been easier to write than the others. When I looked at that, I realised I’d been focusing on the wrong thing. I switched to what I knew she was passionate about, and a new and better storyline fell into place.
The thing was, I had created this wonderful, interesting protagonist, and then I hadn’t listened to her. I should have known better! I’ve spent years working with this character as part of a series and I know her really well. As a writer, you know a protagonist with a full life, good character flaws and a compelling motivation can lead you to a good story.
When I went back to what I know means the most to her, things made sense. I knew then, I could write her novel, and understand how the story progresses.
What or who do they love? What are their triggers, their vulnerabilities, the things they believe in or cherish the most?
— AJ Pearce
2. Spend time with characters to understand their complexities
There’s never a quick fix here. Just like meeting real people in real life, it takes time to understand a character’s personality. When you meet someone complicated and multifaceted, you’re not going to understand their inner workings and deepest terrors within the hour.
Yes, you can nail down hair colour and their favourite food on the first ‘date’, but unless you’re really lucky, it takes time to see the real them. Stick with just the superficial character traits, and you’ll have nothing but flat characters.
I use the mundane parts of my day – housework, travelling, walking – any time I’m alone and don’t have to think about what I’m doing. Then I can just let myself daydream, and let the character creation take shape.
If you don’t get much spare time to yourself, the time between hitting the pillow and falling asleep, or even for five minutes when you wake up, can be great for this, too. Just imagine your character’s actions as they roam around your everyday life. It’s bound to help you create interesting characters.
Play with your characters
It might sound counterintuitive, but if you really want to imbue your characters with complexity, don’t take this process of getting to know them too seriously! Let your characters play.
Allow yourself to escape the real world and give your characters something to do, even if it’s just in your spare time. Play with a piece of plot and see how they handle it. Don’t pressure yourself to write it down. Even if you forget the details, their attitude and gut responses will stay with you. And that’s what builds a deep character. Playtime is golden for writers.
The antagonist in my first book is Henrietta Bird – a formidable advice columnist who doesn’t really like people. I had great fun one morning, walking my dog and making up her one-sentence opinions on each of the last ten British Prime Ministers.
Did it have anything to do with the story? No. Did it make me laugh? Absolutely! More to the point, when I wrote her dialogue I knew Mrs Bird’s voice. I’d heard her crush a Head of State in a few words – it was easy to imagine how she would speak to her staff. And that’s the point of these playful exercises. They help you create characters you and your readers enjoy spending time with.
Writing fiction is incredibly hard. Writers deserve to take the pressure off when we can, and just play. Get your ‘good’ characters to cheer you up, or let the bad guys stir up how much you loathe them. Then it’s in your head when you need it.
3. When appearances matter
I rarely go into long descriptions about what people look like, even when I introduce a new character. I’ll try to set an impression, but once again, I only include one or two things that matter to them. After all, physical characteristics aren’t what we remember our favourite characters for.
You do want to give us some clue of what to imagine. But if your goal is to ensure your character feels real and three-dimensional to your readers, you can use appearance as another tool in your kit. As well as painting a picture, add something that matters to the character and I bet it will help direct how they behave.
I’m not too bothered if a character is six foot two with green eyes. But if being six foot two makes them miserable, or they hate that their eyes are the spitting image of their dad’s, then for me, that’s worth putting in. That gives us a clue into the layers that make them an interesting character.
For example, Clarence the postboy in Dear Mrs Bird is fifteen and in the throes of a paralysing crush. He’s five foot ten with unpredictable skin, and his voice can cover three octaves in as many words. I don’t think I mention much else about his appearance, but these are the things that matter to him and make him the person he currently is.
One day he’ll have grown out of them and while they will have shaped him, I’ll find something more that he can hold dear.
I rarely go into long descriptions about what people look like. I’ll try to set an impression, but I only include one or two things that matter to them.
— AJ Pearce
4. Explore backstory to write round characters
This is another area where the pressure is off and you can have some fun.
I enjoy that it’s just me making up stuff and getting to know the characters. I don’t write any of it down – just like I don’t make notes on people I meet in life (that would be weird). The details that make an impression will stay with you and shape the character’s personality.
Here’s another example: the heroine of my series The Emmy Lake Chronicles is driven to support the women who write into the magazine she works at. That much I knew.
But I needed to understand why she’s so compelled to help, and why she thinks she is qualified to do so. I had a great story, but I needed to flesh it out with the character’s motivations and convictions to make it believable.
Emmy is only twenty-two in the novel, so I spent a long time thinking about her family history – understanding why her parents are the people they are, and how that has affected her.
I wanted influences that would form the basis of Em’s strong belief that everyone has the right to be heard, together with her confidence that she can help them.
To get that, I picked her father from solid, upper-middle-class stock, while her mother is from a more politically motivated, bohemian family. Once I had that, I had a foundation for why and how she is who she is. I had a well-rounded character whose overall story informs her behaviour.
Digging deep into Emmy’s family helped me get to know and understand her. The other aspect of this exercise is that it gave me brand new, fully-formed characters almost without me noticing I’d done the work. I definitely recommend that!
5. Use characters’ surroundings to develop their complexity
One of my favourite characters to write – Mr Collins – is a senior editor who works in a dark, untidy office. It’s rammed full of papers, books and spilled ink which obviously gives an immediate impression of the sort of person he is.
More interesting though, is that there’s a half-empty bottle of brandy on his bookshelf. It’s a hint to his backstory and it matters enormously to him. It’s also something he won’t talk about, so I don’t either. I leave other characters in the novel (as well as the reader) to make their own assumptions. One day they may become close enough to him to find out. But not yet. Readers love understated clues like these, which they can put together for themselves.
You don’t have to explain everything – we don’t know usually everything about the real people around us. Sometimes making characters feel real and complicated is helped more by what we don’t know about them than what we do.
You don’t have to explain everything – in real life most of the time we don’t know everything about the people around us.
— AJ Pearce
6. Own something real
There’s a risk this makes me sound a bit odd, but owning something that belongs to a character in my stories is a tangible way to make them feel more real. It brings me into their world and adds another layer of complexity.
I have a pair of vintage 1940s shoes that Emmy wears in Dear Mrs Bird. She walks through the rubble of The Blitz in them, and having worn them, I know they are entirely practical for the job.
I also have a silver notebook and card case that she uses in my current work in progress. As soon as I saw them online I knew which character would have given them to her and what it said about them as much as her. That’s two complex characters with one stone! It may not make the final draft, but it’s part of my understanding.
If you don’t want your house full of imaginary people’s belongings (which is probably the saner approach), photos also do the job.
I wanted something to represent the arrogant Mr Terry in Yours Cheerfully so searched online for a period ashtray to put on his desk. I spotted an expensive, ostentatious, art deco Rolls Royce ashtray which was spot on. He no more owns a Rolls Royce than I do, but it was perfect for showing how he would try to associate himself with wealth and success. I don’t have to tell the reader that Emmy thinks he’s an idiot – through that object he’s doing it all for himself.
The joy of writing complex characters
If you haven’t already tried some of the ideas above, I hope they may be useful.
It’s not a must-have checklist, and for me there are no set timeframes or rules for writers. But these character development exercises and games are in the toolbox if I need them. Or if I’m stuck on a train. Or if I can’t get to sleep.
Occasionally, I get lucky and ‘see’ a minor character straight away. And of course, they all continue to develop and gain complexity as I’m writing the book. But certainly for the main characters, I love spending time with them off the page. That time is always well spent.
Sometimes I have conversations with readers which, if overheard, probably sound as if we’re talking about people who are real – so layered and complex are these characters. When that happens I can almost hear the characters joining in with us in my head.
After all the time I’ve spent with them, that’s the best thing of all.
Members of The Novelry can enjoy a recorded session with advice from AJ in our Membership Library Catch Up TV Area.