From the time that I was a grasshopper sitting at the feet of my writing master, trying to learn the craft, I was given the same advice over and over: Keep it simple.
But being someone with a Byzantine mind, an overactive imagination, and enough stubbornness to hold up a stone wall–I blew past such sage wisdom for a very long time.
Some things take me forever to learn. But here’s what I now know:
Make your characters complex.
Keep your plot simple.
Let’s consider these one at a time.
Complexity doesn’t stem from a vast heaping of detail. You can bury your protagonist in a variety of hobbies and interests, load her up with sixteen siblings and two step-moms, make her an ex-Marine CPA that plays a mean jazz saxophone, and let her be a rescuer of stray cats. None of that will make her compelling or complex.
A complex character is someone that appears to be one thing or behaves in a certain way, yet in reality is far different from what she seems on the surface.
Complexity comes from the clash of what seems to be and what actually is.
Therefore, let’s consider an elderly woman who lives with two cats, has crocheted doilies protecting her furniture, and embroiders homilies such as “A penny saved is a penny earned” that she then hangs on her walls. But in her youth, she ran one of the most successful brothels in the city and in her heart she remains a tough-as-nails madam and business owner.
Dean Koontz presented such a character in his novel Whispers.
Complexity comes from a person who is torn inside between conflicting responsibilities, or someone whose conscience is at war with his duty.
A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest is not complex.
A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be a cowardly, cheap, lying phony is complex.
A simple plot is clear, direct, and easy to follow. In Holly Black’s children’s book, Doll Bones, a group of children decide that their antique bone china doll is haunted by the spirit of a dead child and they set out to take the doll back to where it was made and bury it in a cemetery.
This premise is certainly creepy, but it is easy to understand. It’s not convoluted, over-wrought, or burdened by an excessive load of subplots.
This isn’t to say that you must avoid complicated plots, but in the hands of an inexperienced writer, a plot woven with numerous plots, a huge cast of characters, multiple settings, and action, action, action may well be an indication of an uncertain writer unable as yet to adequately handle her material.
In fact, the simpler the plot the deeper a writer can delve into the characters.
Let’s take the example of the classic 1948 film, Key Largo, staring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore.
If you’ve seen this movie, good for you! If you haven’t, then spoiler alert! Go see it and then read the rest of this post.
The plot is very simple and straightforward. The characters are complex. The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is steamy. As writers, we can’t create the latter magic, but we can certainly reach for the rest.
In the story, a WWII veteran travels to Florida to visit the father and widow of a GI that served in his company. The dead soldier had talked often about his home in the Florida keys, his father, and his wife. As a courtesy, and from a wish to connect with these good people briefly, the protagonist Frank drops in to meet the family and talk to them about how their soldier died and where he’s buried in Italy.
The old man and his daughter-in-law Nora run a small hotel that’s closed for the season. But they’ve taken in a group of guests who offered more money than they can refuse. These guests include Rocco, a gangster so bad the U.S. deported him before the war, his alcoholic mistress, and his hoodlums. Rocco has sneaked back into the U.S. just long enough to make a deal for counterfeit money which he intends to launder in Cuba.
A hurricane blows in, trapping these people together in the hotel. Frank and Nora fall in love. Once the storm calms down, Rocco forces Frank to pilot the boat to Cuba, but Frank prevails and defeats the gangsters.
Because the plot is so clear and direct, the writer had ample room to develop this cast of characters. They are what powers this story.
Let’s consider them and what makes them complex:
Frank the hero seems to be a calm, competent, kind man who just wants to give comfort to an old man who’s lost his son. He’s courteous and mild-mannered. But Frank is also unable to settle back into civilian life. He’s rootless and restless. He has no family to return to after the war, and he’s held several jobs already, moving from city to city. He remembers the soldier in his company who was always talking about the keys and his family. Frank, needing somewhere to belong, finally turns up and becomes embroiled in the family’s problems. On the surface, Frank doesn’t seem to be a very successful civilian, but in a crisis he is the hero to have on your side. Perhaps the best display of his true nature is when he defies Rocco to give Gaye the drink she so desperately needs.
Rocco the villain seems to be a cut above his thugs at first. On the surface, he acts confident, successful, and in control. But soon we learn that he’s a washed up has-been trying to make a comeback. He’s reunited a few of his gang and sought out his former mistress. He talks big, but in reality he’s a frightened, petty, cruel little man that’s afraid of storms.
Rocco’s mistress Gaye–brilliantly portrayed by Claire Trevor–seems at first to be simply empty-headed eye-candy with a bit too much to drink. Since Rocco’s deportation, she’s been unable to regain her singing career. She makes a half-hearted pretense at first to maintain appearances. But Rocco’s disgust with her, and his cruelty, gives her the strength to betray him. She may be an alcoholic on the skids, but she is no fool. Her conscience and inner decency as a person finally shine through despite the slurred voice and craving for a drink.
Even the minor characters–however stereotypical they may appear to modern audiences–exhibit some complexity in their genial talk and jokes that are masks for the violence they’re capable of.
Often, discussion of this film becomes limited to the romance and that famous Bogart and Bacall chemistry, but I suggest that you study the characters to see how the story’s plot is designed to make them shine–just as jewels are displayed on black velvet cloth.