Writing Great Characters Means Reconciling the Grey Areas of Life

write great characters

Image Credit: Hollywood.com

One of the gifts about being a writer is the desire to people watch and come up with stories about them. We notice patterns, we hear stories, we think of the “spin”. This week, I noticed a pattern and I wanted to talk about it because I think it offers a needed perspective, and helps us to write great characters (whether that is us or a fictional one).

An Example of Complex Characters

I’ve been watching a lot of Sopranos lately. If you don’t know, I currently live and travel full time in an RV and so movies and TV series make up my screen time (other than working in front of my computer, that is). Good stories often involve interesting, conflicted characters, like The Sopranos. The main character, Tony Soprano, cares about his family and takes his daughter to tour colleges, just like any good dad might, only to commit murder while she’s out making new friends. His wife, Carmella desires to be a good wife and devout Catholic yet can’t help but accept gifts joyously from her philandering husband. In my opinion, they are a perfect example of how to write great characters.

What I Mean By ‘Gray Areas’

I propose that reason why we identify with these characters is because we understand life is complex. For most people, we recognize there is a great deal of “grey” in our world, even though we are more comfortable with black and white conversations. Let me give an example as a way to illustrate this:

I really don’t understand why we have a homeless population. I wish everyone could have a place to live. This is a very black and white thought. It is easy and shallow if we leave it at this idea of “homes for all”. We get into the gray when we start talking about homelessness as a result of mental illness, or drug use, or the housing bubble burst. Now, we begin to get deeper and we realize that “homes for all” doesn’t always serve the homeless population but rather puts a band-aid on a social and/or economic issue. It’s easier to talk about desiring every human to have a home (black and white), and it’s hard to talk about mental health, opiate crisis and corporate greed (the gray).

But What About Consistency and Congruence?

When working with clients or while people watching, and even in self-reflection, I find we are complex and yet we desire not to be. We want to be consistent – one way or the other. But consistency is not how you write great characters.

One client described herself within a story of her childhood, as being a fearful coward when just a page and story earlier, she demonstrated true, brave badassery. She “owned” the scared part of herself, identifying it as a characteristic, but when it came to owning her bravery, she overlooked it and even assigned the attribute to her mother. She owned “coward” because, in my opinion, she couldn’t reconcile being both scared and brave.

A friend of mine told me he used to associate being narcissistic with being masculine and therefore strong. I get this because narcissist come across as confident and in control. However, he realized he wasn’t actually narcissistic, but acted in those ways to get people to back off because deep down inside he felt effeminate and didn’t like that. Afraid to be the sensitive man he was, he couldn’t accept that he was both masculine and feminine in attributes at any given time, so hid his true self.

So truly, we are only partially consistent – no one is 100% consistent. However, when we write a character, the reader still needs to understand the reason for the inconsistency. Why does the leader of a non-profit participate in a scam against the very people he serves? (In the case of The Sopranos story line, it is because he is facing significant financial troubles and felt disillusioned by what he thought he could accomplish when he was still ‘green’.) This is very understandable, and therefore we allow this inconsistency, as much as we hate it. In fact, when we see someone be 100% consistent, we actually call them a hero, a martyr, a zealot, etc.

Congruence, on the other hand, is not only more achievable, it is required. For example, if you tell me a character uses broken English because it is their second language, and during dialogue they use perfect grammar, that is not congruent and must be changed if you want to maintain integrity. EDIT your characters for congruence. In memoir, this looks like showing us stories where your character is tested and you come out more solidified in your resolve. In fiction, this means making sure a disabled character struggles with having to use a separate entrance with her wheelchair every so often. Don’t let the reader just assume that because you said something, it is so- show them. This is how you write great characters.

Write Great Characters

In reconciling all of who we are – complex and dual in our thoughts (ie. Can I be both strong and sensitive? Can I be both scared and brave?) – we show the world we are human and therefore relatable. We become interesting and, instead of putting ourselves above others, we invite them into the land of the gray. We are inconsistent, and that’s not only ok, it is expected from those who live a rich life. It is in the inconsistencies that our character is revealed. It is in our judgments and perspectives we discover more of ourselves. It’s in our congruence we become believable.

So, whether you are writing a memoir or fiction, keep in mind this concept of gray, and embrace it. It is, after all, what builds character, complexity, and interest. It provokes thought, and I personally see no higher calling that that.


Looking for more of this type of writing support? Check out my Rolling Writing Group – a paid, effective alternative to critique groups to make you a better writer. Want something else? Contact me.

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