Complexity Simplified

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.

About Eric Bahle

Eric Bahle stopped going to his real job so he could be a full time digital author and storyteller. He loves being in the woods with his bow or on the water in his kayak. He lives in Pennsylvania with his lovely wife and a mongrel dog. He is working on his next bestselling story.


  1. It pains me to disagree with you, but it won’t stop me.

    I think you are underestimating the simplicity of the characters you mentioned, with the possibility of Conan and even then, maybe there’s more to him than meets the eye candy.

    What appears to be simplicity is that not all is revealed. Sherlock seems merely a logic machine, but, over the course of the series, Sherlock has many quirks, talents and flaws. There are hints and implications of why he is what he is, but not all is explicit.

    Laying out a full psychological profile would bog down these stories. We understand the archetype but on some level it is important to be able to imagine that there is more.

    Dirty Harry and Dexter are not mere killing machines. They have influences, contradictions, personality and life experience that guides their actions; otherwise, they would simply put one foot in front of the other and wouldn’t be very interesting.

  2. @Marie – This is a multi-person blog, so you’re actually disagreeing with the most excellent Eric Bahle on this one. I have to make that Author Font bigger, I think.

    I’m somewhere in the middle on this. The simplicity Eric talks about is true – you see the a simple, clearly motivated character and you can “know them” much more quickly. You can learn Dexter’s odd motivations in a sentence or two.

    But it is the nuances of those characters – the details – that really engage. What does Dexter do when he is discovered? What does Dirty Harry do when guns aren’t enough?

    The simple characters enter the crucible, then their layers emerge.

  3. I would suggest that Dirty Harry was and is interesting precisely because all he does is put one foot in front of the other. He’s certainly not likable. He doesn’t appear to have any friends. He has trouble with any conversation that doesn’t involve him insulting anyone, no real connection to anything around him, including most of the other cops. His one drive is to fight the ‘punks and hoods’. When the gun’s not enough he tapes a switch blade to his leg or tosses a bomb in a car.

    That doesn’t take away from the quirks, flaws, and contradictions you can give a character (contradictions work especially well). But I think you should start with that basic drive. That thing that’s going to keep the character moving.