Here’s a way of thinking about how to build characters. (Come to think of it, this might be a way of understanding people in real life, too.) Imagine three layers wrapped around one another like colors in a jawbreaker candy. As we get to know the character, we should get down to the inner layer. And as characters grow, they should start to understand their own inner layer.
The top layer is protective
This layer is socially acceptable but superficial – and often somewhat transparent. Characters (and real people) hold onto it to the degree they (and we) need to, some more tightly than others. But it’s usually at least somewhat obvious that there is something underneath. For example – a character may constantly wear brand name clothes and talk about taking expensive vacations, but there might be a sense that all is not as it seems.
The Middle Layer is Defective
The second layer consists of traits a character is trying to conceal with the top layer. These are usually less socially acceptable, and often less noble than the top layer. For the character above, maybe the character is a social climber who uses people in their efforts to seem wealthy. Or maybe the character has gotten deep into debt wearing all these nice outfits. If we’re not trying to make our audience relate to the character at all, this might be where the description stops.
The Inner Layer is Human
Underneath the other two layers, however, is a human core. Characters (and people) bury this level deeply, because rejection at this level really hurts. But it’s this human core that is the most universal. If we can see the human core of a character, we will understand and care for them. If a character can find and learn to accept their own human core, they will acheive inner peace to the degree it’s possible. For the character above, this means we learn why he or she is so afraid of seeming poor. Maybe he grew up in a situation where his needs weren’t met or he was bullied for being the badly dressed kid at school. Maybe she’s hoping for a rich husband because she’s desperate for her own kids not to have the same childhood. No, don’t you feel like a big ol’ meanie for jumping to conclusions?
Writing tip: Each of these levels can be widened or narrowed to make a character more or less sympathetic. Want to make us care for your character? Show us a lot of that human core. Want to keep them unlikeable? Focus mostly on the defective layer and its superficial coverup.
A writing assignment to practice the three layers of complex characters
Take a character you want to write about. Write a character sketch that addresses each of these three levels.