‘Man is not truly one…’ How to create and analyse complex characters

Meet M-. He’s a northerner, born into a mining family, with his childhood defined by the miners’ strike of ’84-’85. He loves a game of darts and a pint of ale (with a proper head on it, thank you), finished off with a fish butty and a crispy, acidic pickled onion for the walk home from the pub. He’s a football fan and likes rugby too (league, please; none of that kicking and pile-on union stuff). He reads a newspaper regularly but always works his way backwards from the sport section; to be honest he thoroughly enjoys the peace and quiet of his own company.

Now meet M-. A resident of a picturesque south-west farming town. He’s fond of long walks in the idyllic countryside, with his wife and young children. He’s never happier than with his not insubstantial nose wedged in to the pages of a novel, preferably a classic of some sort. He’s partial to a glass of red (Douro or Malbec, if you’re wondering). Having neglected the game in his youth he’s now taken up cricket again and loves the camaraderie  offered by the opportunity to take part in team sports; in a confessional aside he’ll be willing to admit that he suffers from loneliness if he spends to long without companionship.

You might have guessed by now that M- is the same person. You might also have guessed, particularly if you’ve met me, that M- is… Mark. Me. I’m not trying to be egotistical here (okay, just a little bit) but rather to use my pretty humdrum existence as an example of the duality that lies within all of us. Unless we are incredibly, stultifyingly dull, then we will largely have different – often seemingly incompatible – parts to our background and personality. And characters are the same. Well, interesting, successfully drawn ones are.


Not that pupils always pick up on this, of course. Ask yourself, how many times have you had to challenge pupils to widen their perceptions of Curley’s wife? You don’t need me to tell you that some lazy/weak readers like to view her as a lascivious harlot who gets what she deserves while others prefer to offer a hagiographic depiction of her as a downtrodden innocent, absolved of any part in her downfall.

For (major) characters, the truth is usually more complex, full of opposing – often binary – qualities. In her essential guide to creative writing Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft Janet Burroway outlines the ideas of critic and creative writing tutor Cheryl Moskowitz in her essay ‘The Self as Source’. As explained in the extract below, this fiction technique relies specifically on identifying conflicting parts of characters through “character imaging” of themselves, referencing Jekyll & Hyde as a blatant model:



The implications of this technique for the teaching of creative writing are interesting and obvious. Inexperienced writers tend to stick to what they know and this offers a way of finding complexity among the often banal characters teenage writers invent. A simple contrast sheet might well allow the creation of a pair of opposites destined to collide, or even better, an internally conflicted individual, at odds with the world and themselves.

Yet, as I suggested earlier, this skill is also decidedly useful when analysing characters in the class texts that we study.

Consider how these incongruities influence our reading of archetypes for example (and how straightforward, easy to pigeonhole characters quickly become the stuff of stereotype and cliche). Archetypes are comforting and reassuring, yet, like lovers and friends, they can become tedious and annoying when they lack depth and intrigue. One of my favourite TV boxsets of recent years Friday Night Lights – a tale of a small Texan community’s obsession with its local high school football team – initially irritated me with its introduction of off the shelf archetypes: the jock, a handsome star quarterback who, predictably enough, is ‘going steady’ with the beautiful lead cheerleader. Before too long, however, these bland archetypes were utterly subverted (I won’t spoil it for anyone by revealing how) to portray the vulnerabilities of complex characters forced away from their stock depiction.

This approach provides plenty of opportunities to really get to grips with the duality of character. Here’s some of questions that might provoke deeper thought and analysis when discussing character:

  • What’s this character’s primary and secondary motivation?
  • What is the difference between what the writer shows us about the character and what they tell us?
  • Does this character ‘disclose all’ about themselves(Wayne Booth)?
  • What do we see on the surface and beneath the surface with this character?
  • With this character does the writer subvert or follow traditional archetypes?
  • What are the most cliched parts of this character’s persona?

Thanks for reading,

Mark (and Mark)


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