How to Write Deep Characters

Triggered by:  Future Story Status 

A helpful key to understanding the art and technique of character in storytelling, is to consider the folk-psychological notion from Internal Family Systems of people being composed of different 'parts' embodying different drives or goals. A shallow character is a character with only one 'part'.

A good rule of thumb is that to create a 3D character, that person must contain at least two different 2D characters who come into conflict. Contrary to the first thought that crosses your mind, three-dimensional good people are constructed by combining at least two different good people with two different ideals, not by combining a good person and a bad person. Deep sympathetic characters have two sympathetic parts in conflict, not a sympathetic part in conflict with an unsympathetic part. Deep smart characters are created by combining at least two different people who are geniuses.

E.g. HPMOR!Hermione contains both a sensible young girl who tries to keep herself and her friends out of trouble, and a starry-eyed heroine, neither of whom are stupid.  (Actually, since HPMOR!Hermione is also the one character who I created as close to her canon self as I could manage - she didn't *need* upgrading - I should credit this one to J. K. Rowling.)  (Admittedly, I didn't actually follow that rule deliberately to construct Methods, I figured it out afterward when everyone was praising the characterization and I was like, "Wait, people are calling me a character author now?  What the hell did I just do right?")

If instead you try to construct a genius character by having an emotionally impoverished 'genius' part in conflict with a warm nongenius part... ugh.  Cliche.  Don't write the first thing that pops into your head from watching Star Trek.  This is not how real geniuses work.  HPMOR!Harry, the primary protagonist, contains so many different people he has to give them names, and none of them are stupid, nor does any one of them contain his emotions set aside in a neat jar; they contain different mixtures of emotions and ideals.  Combining two cliche characters won't be enough to build a deep character.  Combining two different realistic people in that character's situation works much better.  Two is not a limit, it's a minimum, but everyone involved still has to be recognizably the same person when combined.

Closely related is Orson Scott Card's observation that a conflict between Good and Evil can be interesting, but it's often not half as interesting as a conflict between Good and Good. All standard rules about cliches still apply, and a conflict between good and good which you've previously read about and to which the reader can already guess your correct approved answer, cannot carry the story. A good rule of thumb is that if you have a conflict between good and good which you feel unsure about yourself, or which you can remember feeling unsure about, or you're not sure where exactly to draw the line, you can build a story around it. I consider the most successful moral conflict in HPMOR to be the argument between Harry and Dumbledore in Ch. 77 because it almost perfectly divided the readers on who was in the right *and* about whose side the author was taking.  (*This* was done by deliberately following Orson Scott Card's rule, not by accident.  Likewise _Three Worlds Collide_, though it was only afterward that I realized how much of the praise for that story, which I hadn't dreamed would be considered literarily meritful by serious SF writers, stemmed from the sheer rarity of stories built around genuinely open moral arguments.  Orson Scott Card:  "Propaganda only works when the reader feels like you've been absolutely fair to other side", and writing about a moral dilemma where *you're* still trying to figure out the answer is an excellent way to achieve this.)

Character shallowness can be a symptom of moral shallowness if it reflects a conflict between Good and Evil drawn along lines too clear to bring two good parts of a good character into conflict. This is why it would've been hard for Lord of the Rings to contain conflicted characters without becoming an entirely different story, though as Robin Hanson has just remarked, LotR is a Mileu story, not a Character story.  Conflicts between evil and evil are even shallower than conflicts between good and evil, which is why what passes for 'maturity' in some literature is so uninteresting. There's nothing to choose there, no decision to await with bated breath, just an author showing off their disillusionment as a claim of sophistication.

68 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:26 PM
Select new highlight date
Moderation Guidelines: Reign of Terror - I delete anything I judge to be annoying or counterproductiveexpand_more

Admittedly, I didn't actually follow that rule deliberately to construct Methods

This seems important to note -- if I'm reading your post correctly, it seems like you're piecing together a theory from something that you more-or-less intuitively crafted. As a result, some of the relevant intuition might not have made it into the post. If you're trying to teach people how to create characters, this might be a red flag for you. If not, this is more of an idle comment.

I seem to remember a story about Warren Buffett: whenever he tried to teach people to trade, they failed miserably. When people asked him on why he didn't follow his own teachings on specific successful trades he did, he simply said "Oh, I changed my mind at the last second."

I've never seen sources for it though, so take it with a grain of salt.

Speaking as someone who more-or-less accidentally did the same thing, having it explained this way was very helpful. Thanks, Eliezer!

This is why it would've been hard for Lord of the Rings to contain conflicted characters without becoming an entirely different story

They think we aren't conflicted, precious. We hate them! We hate them forever!



I'm currently re-reading HPMoR and recommending it to anyone who will listen, and I think there is another thing you got quite right. You managed to accurately portray each character's limited information and extrapolate what their decisions would be based on that limited information. There isn't any 'omniscience leakage', wherein a character knows something he shouldn't be able to because you couldn't keep your perspective as the author and their perspective as the character separated. Sustaining and developing that over 1300 pages of increasingly complex plot threads is very impressive.

Heh, every now and then I get a compliment which actually does make me feel like a proper genius in the pre-Dweckian unhealthy sense because it compliments something I accomplished with literally no effort. Likewise when somebody congratulates me on all the effort I must have put in to get HPMOR's time-travel plots straight. I do those in my head without any notes, and it doesn't feel difficult. I wonder if any other mathematician or mathematician-lite would say the same thing I would, that time-travel plots are much less complicated than even slightly serious math.

I think the reason people say they couldn't write a time travel plot is because they think about time travel for five seconds and don't come up with a plot right there.

It's rather easy to come up with plots that require backwards causality and time travel (and psychologically realistic characters, for that matter) if you devote only slightly more cognitive effort to it, such as making it into a hobby or pastime rather than a once-off throwaway thought. It looks Impressive, in the same way that memorizing an algorithm to solve a Rubik's Cube is Impressive.

I think that it's mainly that time travel plots seem a lot harder to write than they are.

Or, that because most of time travel in popular media make no sense whatsoever, people assume it must be very difficult.

They're easier to have written before they're done than they are to start afterwards.

This is true of an unsurprisingly large fraction of writing projects.

Propaganda only works when the reader feels like you've been absolutely fair to other side

As a technique for making good stories, I think this is solid advice. As a technique for making effective propaganda, it's blatantly false. Uncle Tom's Cabin is one-sided. Birth of a Nation is one-sided. Brokeback Mountain is one-sided. MoR is one-sided; no one makes a compelling case against rationality.

This isn't too surprising, considering the source. I've read some of Card's propaganda novels. They're good stories, but I wasn't even a little compelled to become a Mormon.

Game of Thrones and the new Battlestar Galactica appear to me to have characters that are either shallow and/or conflicted by evil versus evil. Yet they are very popular and as far as I can tell, character driven. I was wondering what it means. One thought I had was that many people are interested in relationship conflicts and that the characters don't need to be deep, they just need to reflect, between the main character cast, the personalities of the audience (as messed up as the audience might be).

I think the characterisation in BSG is actually surprisingly deep. Not that good characterisation always has to mean very complex characters: well-drawn simple characters can be very effective. But I think the personalities of the main characters in BSG are much more realistic and plausible than most of other things I've seen.

Can't think of many evil vs. evil characters either. Many of the main characters are struggling with their place on the principle vs. pragmatism spectrum. In terms of 'evil' characters, there's one I can think of who's pretty much straightforward Freudian evil (totally evil, but somewhat justified psychologically) and one who just seems to not have ever obtained any ethics or indeed empathy at all, while only ever doing one noticeably evil thing that I can remember (as being without empathy doesn't instantly make you mad axeman).

GoT, I dunno. Some of them are deeper than others. For a lot they just have widely divergent senses of good: they might just care about a single person, or about family, or about a grudge... But I have nothing against boldly drawn characters of that type, they can be very enjoyable to read.

Interesting point at the end about the personalities of the audience: if the 'shallow' or 'evil vs. evil' characters are capturing real, damaged personalities and plausible relationship conflicts, (and the BSG relationships are definitely plausible to me) then surely they're doing something right?

Theres a difference between deep, well written and compelling characters. GoT and BSG gained praise for having well written/compelling characters, and particularly for making them realistic. A real person or a well written character may have a single overriding obsession that means they are not deep or complex, but are very compelling to watch. Conversely someone can be deep but dull (trivial example: composed of a hundred sub agents obsessed with different accounting standards).

I don't think it is an indicator that the audience is messed up. I haven't seen Battlestar Galactica but regarding Game of Thrones, if the boards are any indicator of the audience, then most people seem to root for the more morally acceptable (good) guys, and are disappointed that they keep getting screwed over. The show is also known for unexpected character deaths, so it could just be an indicator of the audience wanting to be surprised or in a state of suspense.

I may be biased as a big GoT fan.. but I think Martin does a fantastic job. The depth that many of his characters possess is very very impressive. He certainly seems to follow the many parts formula when it comes to characters like Stannis and Theon.

Many of the characters seem straightforward, but you could almost imagine each House as being an individual, and the members of each House as the "parts", each with competing (but somewhat aligned) morals, goals, methods, etc.

I have no "so bad it's good" gene, so I would usually stop reading such a work instantly, like a fanfic with multiple spelling errors in the first chapter. If I had to name a work I read all the way through, Lev Grossman, The Magicians. It's well-written along all other dimensions but I found the protagonists to be needlessly existential - the 'protagonists bored with everything' turned what could have been a great book into a merely good one. That is a literarily influenced SF&F story, of course.

Genre people and litfic people love flinging shit at each other, and it rarely makes much sense to a person actually familiar with the writing. Far as I can make out, it's because of generalising from a little evidence - a lot of the insults make more sense when you look at the more-likely-to-be-recommended stuff (for example, Ian McEwan wrote a whole book which can be very easily strawmanned into "these poor people are really badly off; but you shouldn't give in to the temptation to therefore dismiss all rich people").

Even positive reviews that cross the divide are horribly condescending.


To be clear, I liked the book, though I otherwise don't like the guy's writing.

It'd take me a while to explain it fully, but basically that the worst trends in litfic writing are manifested in his work.

They're hard to pin down, and different people I know have different explanations.

The one in my head is basically that they pay too much attention to theme and perspective; while in many cases litfic is directly about perspectives (themes), lots of people tend to be reductio ad absurdums of this, focusing on these things in rather simplistic ways that sometimes ignore how the world works or the basic potentially interesting things in the setting**. This is made worse because it's less obvious to the unpractised eye by the very nature of what's being tackled what the difference between Nabokov and McEwan is than is that between Arthur C Clarke and a generic bad SF writer; and by the fact that the average litfic writer has been through a professional course in writing and therefore sounds very polished.

Here's China Mieville's explanation, since you shouldn't be limited by my account found in the Guardian (it's not a coincidence that he chose Saturday too, it's partly that it's too good an example and partly that he put it in my head back when I read this piece):
"Literary fiction of that ilk – insular, socially and psychologically hermetic, neurotically backslapping and self-congratulatory about a certain milieu, disaggregated from any estrangement or rubbing of aesthetics against the grain – is in poor shape." Miéville identifies Ian McEwan's Saturday, set around the 2003 demonstration against the Iraq war, as a "paradigmatic moment in the social crisis of litfic".
"In the early 2000s there was this incredible efflorescence of anger and excitement . . . It seemed to me that Saturday quite bolshily said, 'OK, you accuse us of a neurotic obsession with insularity and a certain milieu. I'm going to take the most extraordinary political event that has happened in Britain for however many years and I am going to doggedly interiorise it and depoliticise it with a certain type of limpid prose . . . It was a combative novel that met that sense of there being a crisis and de-crisised it through its absolute fidelity to a set of generic tropes."

*Another particularly appropriate example: Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel involving, among other things, cannibals and an earth that can't grow food that, at page 300, suddenly reveals that it's about A Father's Concerns About Setting His Child Free and nothing else*. I'm sympathetic to the theme, but not when it funges on everything else potentially interesting about the story.

Edit: I consider China Mieville more able to answer this question properly than Eliezer because he has read a lot of litfic and incorporates techniques from that side into his writing.
Also, I just realised that this whole thread must have been a bit frustrating to you because of my laziness. Sorry about that.

I have heard that the decline in the compelling qualities of literary fiction is due to classes in writing taught by literature professors, who know how to identify things like themes but who have no idea how to write compelling writing. Does this seem like a plausible statement to you?

It sounds unlikely to be a cause - with a different reward system different teaching will be deemed right.

No. I wouldn't mind that, but those two are hardly the only things novels can do; and I can't provide an exhaustive list of what literature does and how it does it - if I could do such things I'd have written something worth reading by now.

I'm sorry, but I have no idea how to explain Mieville's statements to you. Lit people are often vague, and often because they aren't able to be clearer. Maybe if you had specific points of confusion I could help.
It might help to know that the litfic audience is a lot more like an academy than a fanbase, and that Mieville is a Marxist so he's using language from there.

*I don't know what you understand and don't.

*I can tell you that he's talking about rich people's concerns and how they've taken over litfic and how there's a very narrow understanding of character building, but there's lots more intricacy to it and that's why I'd do better at explaining bits than the whole thing.

I suspect TvTropes is the best reference for determining basedness here.

Strongly disagree. That page is a list of works that contain conflicts between parties that count as evil by the site's fairly shallow standards, and that's it; it makes no individual claims about authorial motivations. Though if the first few works on the example list that I recognize are anything to go by, comedy, parody, and schadenfreude are more likely as motivations than a cheap play at worldliness.

I doubt you'll find a trope that gives you exactly what you're looking for. Darkness Induced Audience Apathy might be the closest one I can think of, although Eliezer may have been shooting for something more along the lines of True Art Is Angsty; personally, I wouldn't trust either one. TV Tropes isn't especially good at thematic analysis, especially as it touches on "serious" literature.

LotR is a Mileu story


This is why it would've been hard for Lord of the Rings to contain conflicted characters without becoming an entirely different story

I thought some of the characters were conflicted. In the "good vs stupid" sense.

Why is "good" vs "stupid" a conflict? Are they contradictory?

Why is "good" vs "stupid" a conflict? Are they contradictory?

Yes. Doing things that result in predictable bad outcomes is bad. "Meaning well" does not especially impress me (any more).

Please taboo "good". When talking about stories especially, good has more than one meaning, and I think that's part of your disagreement

See the OB post linked at the top.

(My question was asking for confirmation that "Mileu" was a misspelling of "milieu" rather than some new word that I have not heard of and could not find on google.)

So, it was a misspelling of "milieu", correct?

So, it was a misspelling of "milieu", correct?

Yes. (Well, almost certainly. I think if it wasn't I'd have been corrected by now and Robin Hanson's use was of milieu.)

This seems to assume that conflict drives all narratives.

Is it the case that all stories have conflict as a primary aspect?

Conflict, in one form or another, lies at the center of every story. This is widely considered the first rule of writing. Novices should not consider defying it. Almost any book on writing will tell you this, often on the first page.

That is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike an answer to the question that I had.

Is that a feature only of every story ever written, or of every story?

There are apparently forms of Asian storytelling that don't rely on conflict.

Kishōtenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting, etc.—are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole. Kishōtenketsu is probably best known to Westerners as the structure of Japanese yonkoma (four-panel) manga; and, with this in mind, our artist has kindly provided a simple comic to illustrate the concept.

I think it's relatively easy to interpret any story 'without' conflict as having conflict if you look at it from the right direction. If there's a "reconciliation" phase (possibly it could also be thought of as a synthesis phase), then there must be some sort of conflict that needs to be reconciled.

In this case it's reconciliation of the story structure - not reconciliation of the characters. The fourth part shows how the apparent non-sequitur is actually related to the first two parts.

For example (from Wikipedia):

Daughters of Itoya, in the Honmachi of Osaka.
The elder daughter is sixteen and the younger one is fourteen.
Throughout history, generals killed the enemy with bows and arrows.
The daughters of Itoya kill with their eyes.

Of course, the above is also a story about conflict . . . Perhaps Kishōtenketsu is engaging because it induces conflict in the mind of the reader (is that what you were referring to?) and also because it's a poetry form. (This position recommends taking care to avoid arguing about the definition of 'conflict'.)

I would be very interested in reading examples of Kishōtenketsu in longer (significantly text-oriented) works that otherwise avoid conflict (physical, emotional, environmental, social). Unfortunately I'm not aware of any myself.

I just read the page that you linked. I have to say, that if we hadnt read that interesting bit about how the third act is supposed to be a non sequitur, and I had viewed that strip in isolation, it would have been a pretty lame piece of work.. I suppose it was an interesting way to get the idea across, but it doesnt answer the question as to how effective a form of writing it will be and whether it will be powerful enough to hold the attention of a reader.

I also disagree that this concept is alien to western culture. Many stories use this device in the form of mini sub-plots that may go un-noticed.

Not sure I follow. Why is the conflict here not "Man vs. Thirst"? Just because we are only made aware of the conflict as it ends, doesn't mean it wasn't happening in-universe during the first three panels.

Some early science fiction isn't so much about conflict as it is a relation of an unlikely experience. But then, the stories I have in mind weren't exactly that great. So that's not exactly evidence against the assumption. Still, I think a sufficiently skilled writer could create an enjoyable story without conflict, but it would be like a painter throwing out a primary color.

One of my favorite of OP's short posts is Building Weirdtopia. (Yudkowsky's no spoilers approach to scientific pedagogy is such an intriguing one, I'm a quite sad he hasn't spun it into a novel yet. I'd seriously love to read a Neal Stephenson-length epic about a child in such a society recapitulating modern science, but maybe I'm just weird that way.) It strikes me that one could write a novel about a Weirdtopia that has no conflict, featuring only exploration of a counter-intuitive, yet highly intriguing, world. Conversations within, and descriptions of, this strange world (so long as the writer is very, very clever) would keep my interest. But then, this would be more like speculative anthropology than a story.

I haven't found any exploration stories that don't have some form of 'actor versus environment' that is critical to making the writing engaging to the reader. I've also seen plenty of ways to shift the conflict meta, by means of what amounts to a framing device.

I'm excluding descriptive fiction from 'narrative'; I'm not sure exactly what the boundary is, but describing how something works is different from describing somebody operating it.

I disagree with your last point slightly in that I'd say that stories can be classified into two (fuzzy) categories - those that tell us how the world is, and those that tell us how it ought to be. All this stuff about Good and Evil is more relevant to "ought" than "is", but "is" can still be entertaining and valuable.

edit: So as not to overemphasize the disagreement I'll mention that I liked the rest of the post.

You're confusing "evil" with "unsympathetic". Maybe those mean the same thing to you, but we don't all have your unimpeachable moral character.

You're confusing "evil" with "unsympathetic".

I don't think he is.

Perhaps "evil" here just means a object-level match against some entries in Nega-Frankena's list of of disvalues, including: death, apathy and stasis, sickness and enervation, pain and frustration of all or certain kinds, unhappiness, blight, malcontent, etc; untruth; delusion and lies of various kinds, incomprehension, folly; ugliness, discord, monstrosity in objects contemplated; numbing experience; morally bad dispositions or flaws; mutual contempt, hatred, enmity, defection; unjust distribution of goods and evils; mania and obsession in one's own life; helplessness and experience of impotence; pointless abnegation; enslavement; strife, terror; tedium and repetition; and bad reputation, disgrace, shame, etc.

It should be noted that those characters who oppose such things are Good, even if they must choose between one perceived evil and another.

Also, Nega-Frankena is scary.

Right, but he seems to implicitly claim that characters who follow those disvirtues are necessarily unsympathetic. Some of us are sometimes disvirtuous.

Well, yes, I'm often disvirtuous. I'm also often unsympathetic. These episodes reliably co-occur :)

But seriously, I'm now confused and don't think I was addressing your point. Eliezer seemed to me to be talking mostly about "uninteresting", not "unsympathetic", though I'm not clear to what extent these are orthogonal for him.

Can you unpack "sympathy" a bit? When I use it of Evil+Good character A, I think it means something like "I want to see A survive a bit longer, so that he/she can develop into character B, who is the happiest, healthiest, sanest extrapolation of A". I think Evil+Evil characters are unsympathetic/uninteresting in this sense; there's nothing there that I can extrapolate into someone I'd want to hang out with.

My brain's come up with two other possible components of 'sympathy' that strike me as somehow bad ideas (not attributing them to you): "I share some disvalued traits in common with character A, so not liking them makes me somehow hypocritical" "I'll form an alliance with A for mutual defence against social opprobrium for our shared flaw X"

It strikes me as a little awful to only care about bad people inasmuch as they're likely to become good people. Maybe I've been perverted by my Catholic upbringing, but I was taught to love everyone, including the sinners, including the people you'd never want to hang out with. This appeals to me in part because I sin and people don't want to hang out with me, and yet I want to be loved regardless.

It's possible that I am the weird one here, but shows with complex but evil characters such as Breaking Bad do seem largely popular. There is a large current in modern adult TV of these sorts of villainous antagonists, and I think it's more than just false sophistication. I think it's people with the courage to see the dark parts of themselves reflected in fictional characters.

It strikes me as a little awful to only care about bad people inasmuch as they're likely to become good people. Maybe I've been perverted by my Catholic upbringing, but I was taught to love everyone, including the sinners, including the people you'd never want to hang out with.

I believe you're also supposed to hope/encourage the sinners to repent and stop sinning, i.e., you're supposed to root for them to become better people.

I feel a little misrepresented, but that's my own fault. I think we'd have to do quite a bit more unpacking to continue this conversation - you seem to want to mean the same thing by "love", "care about" and "sympathize with", and I think they all come apart for me. Like, maybe (warning: I'm tired) "love" feels like a timeless relation to a particular person-moment, whereas "caring" is timeful and inherently about wanting a possible-future-person to be better than a present-person, including morally better - surely something like that has to be the substance of caring? Like, what else is caring supposed to do? Just give me warm fuzzies?

I also think that I use different cognitive strategies to deal with real people I actually know, versus fictional characters (though I'm not necessarily endorsing that).

Yes, shows like that are very popular, and I'm getting really sick of it. I don't understand it, but I don't really think that it's false sophistication. Or courageous self-examination.

I found this deeply amusing. And made an audio version. I do not fully understand, myself.