Writing Tips

Writing The Emotionally Complex Character

By July 29, 2014 25 Comments

Mello Death Note

My definition of an emotionally complex character might be different from yours.

My version of emotionally complex is the trigger-happy maverick with everything to lose. Think Darth Vader, Eric Cartman, or Mello from Death Note. These are antihero knuckle-biters and inferiority complex demonizers, and they take the plot to new heights with their impulsivity and broken moral compasses.

But how do you write an emotionally complex character?

I once took a personality test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. While it was fun to take (I was either ENTJ or INTJ, I forget), it also showed me how our emotions governed every decision we made. Small questions like “are you often late for appointments?” got me thinking about character building from the granular level.

To write an emotionally complex character, I realized, you had to know them as well as a MBTI test would know you. This means being comfortable with examining your character across a series of 100+ hypothetical questions and answering each of them in a compelling and consistent way.

Make a few mistakes with your answers. Muck around and reinvent, just to see what you’ll get.

“Do you find it difficult to talk about your feelings?” Heck yes!

“Is it in your nature to assume responsibility?” Naw, I’ll pass.

Look at your results and you’ll see a bundle of contradictions and a whole lot more possibilities for character development.

There are three such emotionally complex characters in my YA novel. There is Nash, who is more like Cartman, Emmy, who is more like Vader, and Lukas, who is like Mello. These characters are a bundle of contradictions, and these contradictions make my plot work.

Emotionally complex isn’t always a good thing. It could turn your characters into people to be hated instead of people to root for, but that’s what storytelling is all about. You start with a character at his or her lowest point, and work your way up.

This is one way of making your readers care.


Millie’s Note: What’s your definition of an emotionally complex character?

Join the discussion 25 Comments

  • andy1076 says:

    oof, now I know I can’t write a novel cause I am so not good at establishing emotional States of character, if that makes sense? :-

  • Contradictions…we’re all hypocrites on some level. Explore these within yourself and others (easier to do in others!) and I’d say you have the start of good material.

    I like the idea of using the quiz to figure things out. Not a bad way to start generating ideas!

  • Meyers Briggs is a good idea. I hadn’t thought of using it for characters.

  • MatthewTav says:

    Using the MBTI test is an excellent idea. I’m definitely going to go ahead and use that for more character depth. Thanks for sharing that!

  • aetherhouse says:

    I am also an INTJ 🙂 No wonder we get along so well!

    This was very insightful. Contradictions are neccessary for a round, human character. We are all contradictions. Sometimes we’re selfish, sometimes we’re selflesss. We can be social and antisocial. We can be mellow and short-tempered depending on the subject. This reminds me that I ought to take a MB personality test on behalf of my protagonists, perhaps to give me better insight to them.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Well, that explains it! 🙂

      I think the description of a round character is very fitting. There are many points on one side of a circle, and just as many points on the opposite side. There’s infinite possibility for being selfish or selfless, mellow or short-tempered, and it really does depend on which way the wheel turns. Let me know if your MB character personality test works out!

  • kvennarad says:

    I’m heavily into inconsistency in my characters.

  • gold fish says:

    You don’t strive for perfection .Can you write a novel?

  • I spent a lot of time reading about emotions and their affect on our actions. I think it brings a lot of life to characters, to include those connections. I must say, though–I step away from reading or taking the Myers Briggs. Just because of time. You seem like a complex person, which should make it easier to write. Me–I’m pretty simple!

  • We talked about the MBTI before, and since then I have really got behind it as a way to explore the more complex characters, so not surprised to see you bring it up again in this context. 🙂
    The other thing that’s helped me (with all my characters) is treating each one of them as a lead in their own tale, and giving them a full work-over. I use a template based on Chuck Wendig’s (warning: NSFW – expletives ahoy) http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/10/28/plot-and-character/

    • Millie Ho says:

      Hahaha, I love Chuck Wendig’s stuff! His use of expletives add urgency to his blog entries. Thank you for passing that along. His “summing up your character in 140 characters or less” reminds me of what Spielberg said about being able to write a compelling synopsis using 25 words or less. Brevity in a summary seems to be the key for a tight-knit story (+1 point for internal rhyming?).

  • Karen Wan says:

    That’s a good way of looking at complex characters. I have a few in my novel too. This gives me something to think about today as I am writing. 🙂

  • Sarah G. says:

    Contradictions certainly make things complicated. When it comes to emotionally complex characters, I usually think of inner-struggles like self-doubt and uncertainties. Either way, I love characters who have layers to their personality because they seem to have the most potential for growth, introspection, and surprises. =)

  • Quite thought provoking indeed! I love your comparison to the Myers-Briggs test. Also like your illo.

  • JunkChuck says:

    Timely. I was just thinking my protagonist has been getting a bit…taciturn in places. Also, I’m having the toughest time with his hubris stage in his rise form innocence to experience, where he thinks he’s got it all figured out and then gets smacked back in the face before rising again. He needs to be an ass and it has been hard writing a guy I like as a believable jerk.

  • SuzyKue says:

    Reblogged this on Suzy Kue – Author and commented:
    I really like the thought of using Myer’s Briggs personality test on your main characters. I’ve done survey-like questions and have even had people interview me as if I was one of my characters. This is an excellent Level-Up.

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