How to Write Complex Characters

17 Mar
D Watkins' essay, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

In fiction and essays, it’s tempting to write about characters and people so that they’re merely vehicles for a larger point. The piece begins to feel like an allegory or morality play: See how tragic these poor people’s lives are? See how awful these rich people are? See how mundane these suburban lives are? Categorization is often the enemy of good writing. Think of all the novels and films with smiling, dopey Midwesterners or rude New Yorkers. And, of course, when it comes to race and ethnicity, categorization leads to the flattening effect of the oldest stereotypes in our culture. These caricatures may seem familiar and right to us, but they’re inevitably too simple, and the story or essay, as a whole, suffers. So, how do we write more complex characters?

One answer: give the characters and people in your fiction and essays a chance to be as smart and funny. Don’t let the work become a monologue by you, the author. Instead, let the characters and people speak for themselves. A great example of this strategy is D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” It was published at Salon, where it became on of the most-read pieces on the Internet in 2014. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

The title of Watkins’ essays sums up its point pretty clearly: some communities do not have access to the media (24-hour news, Twitter, Facebook) that most of us take for granted. It’s an interesting, complex argument that carries with it the risk of oversimplification. The essay’s setting is East Baltimore, a neighborhood made visible to national audience by the HBO series The Wire. In other words, it’s a neighborhood and a community that many of us think we know, either from TV or from general ideas about black, inner-city poverty. Given those expectations, look how the essay begins:

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.

The dynamics at work are immediately clear: national media trends versus the isolation and segregation of inner-city poverty. See how quickly I’m able to sum up those first sentences? The essay could work at the level of the categories I just created and still make its point. Yet something would be lost, and that something would be the people at the heart of the essay. These people (Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head) are not characters whose lives stop at the end of the page. They don’t exist just for readers to learn about poverty. If the essay proceeded from the general categories I created, those lives would be reduced. But that’s not what Watkins does. Instead, he moves back and forth between broad categories and the idiosyncratic and personal.

Here is an example of categorization:

Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Note the terms and phrases he uses: “disenfranchised” and “one of those spots.” It’s a language that plays into expectation, that assumes the reader knows something already about these people.

Now, here is how Watkins moves away from the general and toward the personal:

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the fuck is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

Imagine how John Steinbeck might have written this scene, the kind of plodding march he would have made toward the thematic conclusion. You can’t miss the point in any of Steinbeck’s writing or in any number of political speeches. And you can’t miss the point here, either. But the essay also allows the people at its heart to participate in the discussion. They aren’t dumb puppets in a morality play. They’re actively engaging with the information they have and seeking out answers. Another writer might have left out the line, “What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” because it reveals that the speaker, Dontay, a man drinking vodka in a tenement, knows about corporate bailouts. It complicates the characterization of someone who is disenfranchised. These are people with thoughts and opinions of their own—and they aren’t always predictable, as Watkins later reveals:

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

Good writing should hit the mark it aims for. If it has a point, it should make it. But the writing shouldn’t make that point while honoring the complexity of the world it portrays.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create complex characters using “Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D Watkins as a model:

  1. Summarize your point. In a story, this point is usually dramatic: where should the drama/tension stand at the end of the scene? In an essay, this point can be dramatic or thematic. Either way, it’s important to know where you’re headed. Can you sum up the conclusion or how things stand in a phrase as easy to understand as “Too Poor for Pop Culture?”
  2. Categorize the characters or people. You can use the same phrases as Watkins: I/they call us/them _____. One of those places that ______. You’re connecting the characters, and, by extension, the setting, with the knowledge or expectations that the readers bring with them.
  3. Let the characters or people speak. The power of dialogue is that it often defies generalization. People use language in surprising ways. The phrases and diction they use can make us pause, force us to pay attention. In dialogue, people and characters also tend to reveal the inner workings of their minds. We see them from the outside and develop ideas about them, but dialogue has the power to show us what we cannot see or guess at. So, give your characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. Create an opening for them to talk about what is going on, dramatically or thematically. In “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” Watkins doesn’t just show us that his friends don’t know what a selfie is. He lets them talk about how they don’t know what it is. How can you let your characters or the people in your essay talk about the thing at the heart of your writing?

Good luck.

One Response to “How to Write Complex Characters”


  1. An Interview with D Watkins | Read to Write Stories - March 19, 2015

    […] To read his essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” and an exercise on writing complex characters and people, click here. […]

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