So I’m still thinking about characters and what makes a good one. Or at least a memorable one. Sometimes I’ll hear people talk about ‘rich, complex characters’. If you have one of those that’s fine I suppose but it occurs to me that many memorable characters are not complex at all. Sherlock Holmes, Conan, Indiana Jones, The Man With No Name. All pretty simple characters with pretty simple aims. They need to be simple because if they are truly complex they have too many options. Options drain the tension out of a story. Characters need drives not options.
If Dirty Harry Callahan were more complex he might have the option of following the rules or even notshooting someone. How well do you think that would work? In the recent movie ‘Taken’, we know exactly three things about Liam Neeson’s character. He’s extremely good at what he does (special operations), he’s obsessed with the details (of anything he does), and he loves his daughter. When the daughter is kidnapped, this man has one option. Get her. No hand wringing, tears, calling Interpol, blaming himself. Just instant and relentless action until his daughter is safe again.
So that’s a movie, what about prose? I mentioned Sherlock Holmes. Despite his vast knowledge and skill set, as a character he’s really only one thing. A logic machine. If you want something a little more modern check out the Dexter novels (also an excellent show on Showtime) by Jeff Lindsay. Dexter Morgan is not complex. He has no complex emotions, no human emotions at all. He’s a serial killer and his character can be boiled down to two things. The unstoppable need to kill and the need to follow the code his father set down for him. Pretty simple but Lindsay gives us suspense, drama, humor, and horror by watching a simple driven character exercise his few options in different situations.