How to Write Deep Characters

Trig­gered by: Fu­ture Story Sta­tus

A helpful key to un­der­stand­ing the art and tech­nique of char­ac­ter in sto­ry­tel­ling, is to con­sider the folk-psy­cholog­i­cal no­tion from In­ter­nal Fam­ily Sys­tems of peo­ple be­ing com­posed of differ­ent ‘parts’ em­body­ing differ­ent drives or goals. A shal­low char­ac­ter is a char­ac­ter with only one ‘part’.

A good rule of thumb is that to cre­ate a 3D char­ac­ter, that per­son must con­tain at least two differ­ent 2D char­ac­ters who come into con­flict. Con­trary to the first thought that crosses your mind, three-di­men­sional good peo­ple are con­structed by com­bin­ing at least two differ­ent good peo­ple with two differ­ent ideals, not by com­bin­ing a good per­son and a bad per­son. Deep sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ters have two sym­pa­thetic parts in con­flict, not a sym­pa­thetic part in con­flict with an un­sym­pa­thetic part. Deep smart char­ac­ters are cre­ated by com­bin­ing at least two differ­ent peo­ple who are ge­niuses.

E.g. HPMOR!Hermione con­tains both a sen­si­ble young girl who tries to keep her­self and her friends out of trou­ble, and a starry-eyed hero­ine, nei­ther of whom are stupid. (Ac­tu­ally, since HPMOR!Hermione is also the one char­ac­ter who I cre­ated as close to her canon self as I could man­age—she didn’t *need* up­grad­ing—I should credit this one to J. K. Rowl­ing.) (Ad­mit­tedly, I didn’t ac­tu­ally fol­low that rule de­liber­ately to con­struct Meth­ods, I figured it out af­ter­ward when ev­ery­one was prais­ing the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and I was like, “Wait, peo­ple are call­ing me a char­ac­ter au­thor now? What the hell did I just do right?”)

If in­stead you try to con­struct a ge­nius char­ac­ter by hav­ing an emo­tion­ally im­pov­er­ished ‘ge­nius’ part in con­flict with a warm non­ge­nius part… ugh. Cliche. Don’t write the first thing that pops into your head from watch­ing Star Trek. This is not how real ge­niuses work. HPMOR!Harry, the pri­mary pro­tag­o­nist, con­tains so many differ­ent peo­ple he has to give them names, and none of them are stupid, nor does any one of them con­tain his emo­tions set aside in a neat jar; they con­tain differ­ent mix­tures of emo­tions and ideals. Com­bin­ing two cliche char­ac­ters won’t be enough to build a deep char­ac­ter. Com­bin­ing two differ­ent re­al­is­tic peo­ple in that char­ac­ter’s situ­a­tion works much bet­ter. Two is not a limit, it’s a min­i­mum, but ev­ery­one in­volved still has to be rec­og­niz­ably the same per­son when com­bined.

Closely re­lated is Or­son Scott Card’s ob­ser­va­tion that a con­flict be­tween Good and Evil can be in­ter­est­ing, but it’s of­ten not half as in­ter­est­ing as a con­flict be­tween Good and Good. All stan­dard rules about cliches still ap­ply, and a con­flict be­tween good and good which you’ve pre­vi­ously read about and to which the reader can already guess your cor­rect ap­proved an­swer, can­not carry the story. A good rule of thumb is that if you have a con­flict be­tween good and good which you feel un­sure about your­self, or which you can re­mem­ber feel­ing un­sure about, or you’re not sure where ex­actly to draw the line, you can build a story around it. I con­sider the most suc­cess­ful moral con­flict in HPMOR to be the ar­gu­ment be­tween Harry and Dum­ble­dore in Ch. 77 be­cause it al­most perfectly di­vided the read­ers on who was in the right *and* about whose side the au­thor was tak­ing. (*This* was done by de­liber­ately fol­low­ing Or­son Scott Card’s rule, not by ac­ci­dent. Like­wise _Three Wor­lds Col­lide_, though it was only af­ter­ward that I re­al­ized how much of the praise for that story, which I hadn’t dreamed would be con­sid­ered liter­ar­ily mer­it­ful by se­ri­ous SF writ­ers, stemmed from the sheer rar­ity of sto­ries built around gen­uinely open moral ar­gu­ments. Or­son Scott Card: “Pro­pa­ganda only works when the reader feels like you’ve been ab­solutely fair to other side”, and writ­ing about a moral dilemma where *you’re* still try­ing to figure out the an­swer is an ex­cel­lent way to achieve this.)

Char­ac­ter shal­low­ness can be a symp­tom of moral shal­low­ness if it re­flects a con­flict be­tween Good and Evil drawn along lines too clear to bring two good parts of a good char­ac­ter into con­flict. This is why it would’ve been hard for Lord of the Rings to con­tain con­flicted char­ac­ters with­out be­com­ing an en­tirely differ­ent story, though as Robin Han­son has just re­marked, LotR is a Mileu story, not a Char­ac­ter story. Con­flicts be­tween evil and evil are even shal­lower than con­flicts be­tween good and evil, which is why what passes for ‘ma­tu­rity’ in some liter­a­ture is so un­in­ter­est­ing. There’s noth­ing to choose there, no de­ci­sion to await with bated breath, just an au­thor show­ing off their dis­illu­sion­ment as a claim of so­phis­ti­ca­tion.