Discovering Character Complexity

By Kirby Gann, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Fiction Faculty

Similar to Beth Ann Bauman, in her excellent post of Feb. 17, character has been on my mind of late. Beth Ann speaks mostly of what makes a character interesting and complex; I’m thinking more of how one might go about discovering these aspects.

Recently I’ve had more than one student express frustration with the difficulties of character—not so much creating them as sustaining them, knowing who they are and what they want to do as they move through the created world. It seems to me that character and situation tend to arrive together, one informing the other; that as soon as we come up with a name and add some signifying adjectives, we already have something for this person to do—to decide, act, speak—and away we go. That might get us through a page or two or even more, but inevitably the initial momentum stops and the question becomes, “What next? What does this character want to do—what would come naturally?” At this point, the character becomes opaque in our mind, and we realize we don’t have sufficient grasp of who they are. A tough spot to be in, since vivid, living character is the pulsing heart of any good fiction.

“I don’t feel like I know my characters well enough,” a student fretted. Which I take as another way of saying, “I’m stuck; I don’t know what’s next to get my narrative moving forward in a credible way.” Uncertainty settles in. The options are so vague and varied they become overwhelming, paralyzed before infinite choices when our intuition tells us there’s only a “right” way to move forward and it’s waiting for us to find it (in theory, “anything can happen” sounds like the ultimate freedom to invent, while in practice the sheer number of possibilities is stultifying: how to choose? how do we know if we’re choosing “right”?)

How much does one need to know about a character? It certainly seems when we read Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Morrison, and Munro that these authors know everything there is to know about Stavrogin, Joe Christmas, Sethe, and Rose (from Munro’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”). These characters seem as alive (if not more so) than some people we might know in real life; they have depths far beyond the stories in which we encounter them.

Which is both fascinating and odd, when you stop to consider the ramifications; for, when you get down to practicalities, the writer needs to know only those aspects of a character necessary to fulfill the demands of the created story. Yet that makes them seem like chess pieces, when what we seek are individuals as complex and fascinating as we feel ourselves to be. It sounds somehow false to think of our characters in such terms—as figures drawn to create narrative movement, and to hopefully engage the reader’s emotions and intellect in the process—doesn’t it? Nabokov famously intimated that his characters never surprised him, that he considered them his “galley slaves”; without denying his brilliance one might argue that often his characters fulfill roles, that the reader can often feel a schematic in the design his characters must follow. I know I want mine to have teeming lives rich in troubles and pleasures, even if they only step onto the “stage” of my story for a scene or two.

There are about a gazillion guides available in book form or on the web to prompt your imagination into identifying so-called salient characteristics of a given character—items like height, weight, favorite foods, biggest fears, favorite color and types of clothes, etc.; they often recommend creating a “file” plumped with such characteristics for each individual you create in order to keep track. Personally, this strategy has never seemed very helpful to my own process. It strikes me as simply producing information, details that mean little to who a person is (knowing a character’s fear could be helpful, granted), when what we want to know is the essence of what and how this person ticks within the context of the narrative we’re trying to make happen. Rarely does what a character look like have much impact on the story or affect what that character does. How often, in the novels and stories you’ve read and loved, have a character’s physical characteristics lingered in your mind? How often has physical detail defined the character for you?

(An aside: as soon as I typed this last sentence, I stared at the wall and tried to rifle through thirty-five years of dedicated reading, trying to recall such details; my brain offered Ignatius P. Reilly, from A Confederacy of Dunces, and his mercurial stomach valve—such an important detail to Reilly and the larger story that it attains symbolic value—and then came up with Shakespeare’s Falstaff being bearded and fat.)

Anne Lamott has good advice with her notion of each person having his or her “emotional acre” from birth, and that “as long as you don’t hurt anyone,” you get to do whatever you want with that acre. This is a helpful metaphor to start one thinking about one’s characters: how does each tend his or her emotional acre? what does it look like? what do they keep there, what do they hide? How would they describe it? Do they tend to the land there, or not? Do they focus on their own acre, or do they sometimes check out the acres of others, see what they’re doing with theirs?

One can also look to loved stories or novels and examine the depiction of character there, analyze what sort of information the author puts onto the page to make that character come alive. Is it the way she speaks? The way others perceive him? What, do you think, makes you empathize with this character—or, if you can’t empathize, what makes that character interesting enough to follow?

At its foundation, the invention of character is essentially the author’s idea of what a human being is. Framed in that way, the process seems like it should be natural to do, and that anyone can do it, no? Ask yourself, what is your idea of what makes a person an individual? Thinking along these lines— “What individuates this character from the rest of humanity”—can help get your pen moving and point you toward a clearer idea of her. It can be helpful too to keep in mind that you literally cannot make wrong choices here; if you come up with details and items that contradict one another, that’s only making the character more interesting.

But these suggestions are coming at the problem from the outside: the author categorizing the details of an invented person. Another method, one that’s helped me, is to come around the other way, and allow the character to tell me directly what I need to know. Give yourself fifteen uninterrupted minutes and dwell over the character in question. Think of what little you do know, or sense, about him or her. Then ask that person to tell you what they want you to know about them. Have them write a letter to you, the author of their life. Don’t let your pen (or keyboard) stop for those fifteen minutes, and simply let this person talk.

That’s it. Not everything written here will be useful or interesting. But many times when I’ve been stuck due to the resistance of a character to come to life and move the narrative forward, this short exercise has given me something, and it’s usually just enough to get the story progressing again.


Kirby Gann is the author of three novels and a short work of memoir/literary criticism, Bookmarked: John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. A freelance editor, book designer, and writing mentor, he is currently finishing a story collection tentatively entitled Them’s Got Ears, Let Them Hear.