The Three Layers of a Complex Character

Here’s a way of thinking about how to build characters. Imagine three layers wrapped around one another like an onion or jawbreaker candy. As we get to know the character, we get closer to the innermost layer. As characters grow, they often start to understand their own innermost layer.

Top layer: Protective

This layer is superficial and often socially acceptable. It can also be somewhat transparent. Characters (and real people) hold onto these surface-level, protective traits to the degree they (and we) need to—some more tightly than others. As a writer, if you stop here, the character can probably be described in one adjective. Peppy cheerleader. Tough drill sergeant. Caring nurse. If you’re writing a character with any type of development, however, there’s probably something underneath this adjective. For example, a character may constantly wear designer clothes and talk about taking expensive vacations, but there might be a sense that all is not as it seems.

Middle Layer: Defective

The second layer consists of traits a character is trying to conceal with the more superficial layers up top. These traits are usually less socially acceptable, and often less noble than the top layer. Depending on the type of story, your peppy cheerleader could be struggling with mental illness, or covering for her bionic serial-killer boyfriend. The tough drill sergeant could be masking his own fear or spying for the enemy. The caring nurse may be bored, bitter, or burned out once she’s off her shift. And the designer-clothes-expensive-vacation character might actually be a social climber who uses people in their efforts to seem wealthy. Or maybe this character has gotten deep into debt wearing all these nice outfits. Letting this middle layer show through lets readers or viewers feel like they’re onto the character. They’ve figured him or her out. It’s an “aha, gotcha!” moment. And if we’re not trying to make our audience identify with our character more deeply, the development might stop here.

Inner Layer: 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. The human motivations of characters are close enough to our own that we can recognize them in ourselves even if we would never act like the character.  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 achieve inner peace to the degree that this is possible. For the character described 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 she had. This is a different kind of aha moment for readers or viewers. Rather than feel that they’ve figured out the character, they may feel like they’ve figured out something about themselves or their fellow humans, or tapped into some characteristic that is inside us all.

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. You can draw from this character sketch as needed as you write.

Writing tip: Remember that each of these layers can be widened or narrowed to make a character more or less sympathetic. Want to make us care for your character? Show us more of that human core. When there is enough humanity showing through, an audience might stay on a character’s side even if the character is cooking meth or scamming their friends out of thousands of dollars. Want to make the character less relatable? Focus mostly on the defective layer and its superficial coverup.

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