Mapping Your Way to Complex Characters

By Cerissa DiValentino

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The disorienting feeling you experience after finishing a novel wherein the characters feel like someone you know in real life demonstrates the power complex characters have over our emotions. As writers, we aim to immerse our readers so completely into the world we’ve created that they’re hesitant to leave it. Most importantly, we want our readers to feel an emotional bond to our characters because it means we did our job right. Written effectively, complex characters have the ability to sustain narrative urgency and continue to impress upon the reader long after they’ve finished the book.

To that end, the best plots are character-driven, and it’s through the tension between a character’s desires and their internal and external obstacles that the reader latches onto the story, aiming to figure out how this character is going to obtain what they so badly want. The reader loves to root for the underdog rather than the perfect cheerleader who has won Prom Queen three years in a row. Readers empathize with flawed characters living outside the limelight in hopes that eventually, through struggle, they’ll achieve their desires and shine.

As a helpful tool in crafting complex characters, I suggest character mapping. Start by looking at your central character and asking the question: what is it that my character really wants? After you have come up with an answer, ask yourself: what are the obstacles in my character’s path (both internal and external). Next: what are some ways my character can achieve their desires despite these obstacles? Once you have an outline of what your character desires, what obstacles they face and how they are going to persevere, you already have a plot in the making and you’re ready to start writing.

For example, in Courtney Maum’s Costalegre, the novel follows Lara, a fifteen-year-old girl who is constantly neglected by her mother, but deeply desires to be cherished by her. Lara is a developing artist living on the island of Costalegre with a group of outcast artists her mother has rescued from Europe at the start of Hitler’s regime. Throughout the novel, it’s obvious to the reader that Lara wants her mother to appreciate her artwork as she does the work of the artists she has rescued. Lara’s perseverance to become a skilled artist, thinking that her mother might pay her more attention if she is more talented, breaks my heart and makes me feel closer to her. As the reader, I am instantly drawn to Lara’s inner conflict and feel her desire for motherly love as if it is my own. As the character who is dismissed by others throughout the novel, she becomes the reader’s entire focus because we wish for her to achieve her desires as much as she does.

People are constantly searching for something that will make them feel more alive, more aware, or in other words, simply more human. We fall in love with characters that emulate all human behavior, including flaws. Characters that desire more than what they have and go against the general grain of society to achieve it, make us root for them. When Lara takes off on a horse despite the oncoming storm because she wants to prove to the adult artists that she has her own agency, we are rooting for her with our fists high in the air. If your characters are as multifaceted as you are human, the reader will find those characters more enticing than any typical, popular cheerleader.

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