People are complicated. Even when we try to be whole-heartedly one thing (compassionate, hard-working, friendly, cool) other things get in the way. And not necessarily outside things. I’m talking about the things inside, the are counter to what we want and who we want to be. For instance: if you are or want to be cool, maybe you have an “uncool” hobby that you feel you have to keep secret, and then end up snapping at people when they pry. Or you simply have two conflicting desires: stay in town and keep your secure job, friends, and romantic relationship, or travel to a new city, start all over, and remake yourself. That might be an extreme example, but it’s out there.
So if people are this complicated, our characters should be too. Let me take a moment and say: complicated should not mean confusing, not in fiction at least. The character can be confused, but the reader should not be. There should always be a solid reason for what the character decides or does, even if it is only clear in retrospect (using foreshadowing is a big part of this).
Character flaws are a huge part of making a character complex and complicated. A lot of what I read (and am frustrated with) has one of two types of flaws: 1. something superficial that gets lost when the story really heats up. This is annoying because underneath the superficial “flaw” (and it’s usually not even something the character does, but part of the character’s appearance) that character is still the most normal, perfect guy or gal. Nothing conflicting inside them. 2. Anger/temper/quick to make assumptions. This bothers me because, although it is a legitimate flaw, it is overused and oversimplified.
(A quick aside on anger and the characters who, in what I read, most often get this “flaw”: Anger is a secondary emotion. I know, it DOES NOT feel like it. But anger is what happens when we don’t want to feel hurt. Example: you get criticized by someone for a little thing (say, not vaccuming) and you are hurt that they criticized you for it but don’t want them to know you are hurt because that makes you vulnerable and they just “attacked”, so instead you get angry and a fight starts. All of this happens really fast (most of the time) and we don’t even recognize it as happening. And, obviously, there are many different ways that it happens. Okay, so who most often gets saddled with anger? Two character types: big brooding guy and “strong female.” Big brooding guy is probably closer to the anger as secondary sort of effect. He usually has a troubling past which has caused him to shut down and get angry (because he jumps to conclusions about people). “Strong female” is usually an outcast of some sort and has to use her anger to get by in a guy’s world, or to get through to big brooding guy (who is all too often a romantic interest). Anger is important in stories, don’t let it go. But think about how you use it.)
Conflicting desires within one character are a way to bring out their flaws. They want two things (that they can’t have at the same time) and one of them might be something they really shouldn’t want, but do anyway and go for that, even though maybe the other one is helping someone in need. They choose to fulfill a selfish desire. You can, of course, use conflicting desires in many different ways to create, you got it: conflict. And if different characters have conflicting desires but have to work together, that’s pretty great too.
Conflicting motives is a big one too. Maybe our character decides to help that person in need after all, but only because the guy she likes is with her and she wants to impress him with her selflessness. If she does this enough, he will believe that she is selfless and be shocked when she does something selfish.
Internal battles can be difficult to get across in writing, but people always question themselves and who they are and if they are doing the right thing. I’ll use myself as an example here: I know I am a compassionate person, but I also know that I do mean things sometimes. I try not to, but it happens. And so I, like the characters in books, have to balance these conflicting roles that I see myself in. This is called cognitive dissonance and is an awesome tool for writers.