How Many

Who's a more complicated character, Dan Quayle or Lyndon Johnson? The answer is obviously Johnson. What was it that made Johnson complicated? Can you guess? It's related to emotion. Quayle is seen as rather shallow and bungling. He's pretty much a one-note personality. Johnson, on the other hand, was a symphony of contradiction. He was capable of enormous generosity and great viciousness at the same time. That's why we think of him as complicated. A complicated character is one who embodies many different, often opposing, qualities at one time. Which brings us to an important issue for creating character in story.

How many emotions/thoughts can be dancing in the mind of the character at one time? How many emotions can you feel at once? Well, you might feel guilt, anger, sadness, regret, and relief at the death of a loved one. And all of them will be pulling at you at once. Now, we can't do them simultaneously on the page, or we'd be typing one sentence on top of another. But we can have these emotions affecting the character one right after the other in a scene by having the character have a sad thought, a guilty thought, an angry thought, etc.

Oh, Lord. Mom's gone. I don't know if I can stand it. She didn't deserve this. What a rotten world. And I'm one of the rottenest. I really let her down. I could have done more—a lot more. But why me? I'm not her only kid. John never even called. Let it go. She's at peace. No more pain, thank God. It's over.

What we're after in fiction is the full experience. We rarely feel only one thing at a time. Life is seldom so simple. Crisis usually involves being pulled in many directions at once, internally as well as externally. So, when you write, look for all the emotions that the character could possibly be feeling at one time. If he could be feeling it, he should be feeling it.

Here's a scene:

"You're a rotten, lousy, self-centered, inconsiderate bastard," she said to her husband.

"And you're a crude, ignorant, repulsive old hag," he said.

Are you sympathetic to these characters, moved by them, identified? Chances are, you're not particularly touched by them. Why is that? There's plenty of emotion. Why isn't it reaching you? See if you can figure it out. It has to do with emotion—the emotion they're having and the source of it.

Let's try it again, only differently:

"I told you I was cooking your favorite dinner tonight and we'd eat at eight o'clock. You said you'd be home in time," she said. "At eight o'clock, I had everything ready—table set, candles lit, wine poured. All the food was ready. I waited. You weren't here at eight-thirty. I sat here like a fool, watching the food get cold. Nine o'clock, nine-thirty, you're still not here. You didn't call. Now you come through the door at ten o'clock acting as if nothing is wrong. You rotten, self-centered bastard. You make me feel worthless."

Is that version more involving? If so, why? What's in this version that isn't in the first? Can you identify it? The answer is not that there's more detail or more dialogue. It's a specific emotional ingredient that isn't in the first version.

In the first version the characters are expressing anger only. Now, anger is a fine emotion. It's all over the place in literature and life. We need it. But anger is a response to something else. Something that happens first, something that makes us angry. What is anger a response to? Anger is a response to injury and pain. If something makes you angry, it's hurt you or caused you pain. Without expressing the injury, the pain, you're not giving the reader (or the character) the full experience. Anger is only the surface.

If someone comes in ranting and raving and cursing, you ask, "What's wrong?" If the angry person answers, "What do you mean, 'What's wrong?' I'm angry. That's what's wrong." You would ask, "What made you angry?" Intuitively we know there's more and want to find out what this person's angry about. We're always going for the deepest cause in fiction. It's about root causes, going to the deepest level possible—to the level of vulnerability.


Vulnerability is what we're naturally drawn to. If someone is hit by a car, we don't say, "I'll be right there as soon as I help this boy tie his shoe." No, we rush to the person who needs us most, the one who's most vulnerable. It's part of our nature. And it goes as deep as evolution and natural selection. It's what we've had to do to survive as a species. Ask yourself, "Who are the most vulnerable creatures in human society?" Babies. We're naturally drawn to protecting babies. Who would not freak out at seeing a baby crawling across an expressway?

Vulnerability is the natural and necessary ingredient for identification. When you get close to someone in friendship or in love, you reveal your weaknesses, your vulnerability. That's how you really get to know someone—by reaching his humanity, his tenderness, his vulnerability. When a character is faced with a serious threat, he's worried and frightened. He's vulnerable. So, even when we're writing about adults, we're getting to the baby in them, the baby in all of us—the tenderness, the humanity. Only through vulnerability can we create identification. Even when writing about macho, tough-guy gangsters, we have to get to it. " 'You hurt me, Vinnie. You really hurt me,' he said, then pulled the trigger."

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