Is a Complex Character Inherently Better Than a Simple One?

One thing that I always look for when picking a character for analysis is complexity. It’s fairly difficult to write an essay on someone when you can summarize their entire deal in just a few sentences. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Many stories have been critiqued for having simple characters. I myself have made that same point in many a review. It’s a personal preference thing, as all things are in critical thinking. But why is that the case?

More complex characters are often seen as more compelling due to the extra layers they have. They give you more to think about, more to engage with, more to relate to. Plus, having extra complexity allows them to become more unpredictable, thus allowing them to make decisions that take the story in directions that the audience doesn’t expect.

Take ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, or the early seasons of ‘Game of Thrones’. Each of the core characters in that series have far more layers to them than the simple morals of a good guy or a bad guy. They have things they like, things they hate, things they want, lines they will and will not cross, they can be subtle or they can be blatant. It’s a complicated story about political plotting, with each player in the Game of Thrones being unpredictable in their own ways. Because of this, it’s impossible to guess what is going to happen next during your first time through the story.

Just look at Tyrion. The tiny little dwarf is a cunning mastermind, but the world is constantly pushing against him and his plots. He’ll pull of a genius maneuver that later turns out to have been a mistake. On top of that, you’re never quite sure where he stands; he’s a Lannister, but he often shows empathy towards the Starks and the other enemies of his house. You never quite know what he’s going to do next.

At least until the show made him an idiot.

So, complex characters are better, right? They make a story more interesting and unpredictable, therefor they’re more enjoyable, yes? Well, it depends on the story being told. Sometimes, simplicity is better.

Characters that are simple and easy to understand can be just as compelling as one with more complexity. You grow to understand them better, so you can mostly guess what they’ll do in any given situation. But that can be used to create all kinds of tension in a story. Will they make a bad decision that the viewer/reader understands the character would make? Will they find a way to overcome an impossible situation while keeping true to themselves?

As an example, let’s look at Luffy from ‘One Piece’. Luffy isn’t a complicated man; he loves freedom, adventure, and being with his friends. He does what he wants, when he wants to, regardless of what other people tell him. Even in the face of impossible odds, he stays true to himself and fights like hell to come out on top.

You quickly come to understand what this dude is all about, so you can guess what he’s going to do at pretty much any turn. But that’s part of what makes him so likable and compelling. He’s often faced with seemingly impossible odds or placed into a situation where running away or giving up would be the best option. Instead, Luffy charges in head-on, defying the odds to get what he wants. How could you not root for that?

Another fantastic example is Armin from ‘Attack on Titan’. In a series full of morally gray complicated characters, Armin is your pretty standard good guy. He has a more passive approach to life, always searching for the least violent option and trying to prevent people from getting hurt. However, that kind of mentality simply does not fly in a world as dark and violent as the one he lives in. What makes Armin compelling and likable is that he sticks to his guns and always tries to find solutions to impossible problems. He’s often crushed by doubt and stress, but he never gives up.

At the same time, there are the characters that you want to fail. For example, let’s look at Gollum from ‘The Lord of the Rings’. He isn’t a complicated person; he’s a cunning little monster, twisted into evil by the Ring and desperate to get his precious back. You can always guess what he’s going to do next. Naturally, you’re rooting against him; he is the antagonist, after all. So, when his nature ultimately ends in his failure and death, it makes for an extremely cathartic end to his story.

Ultimately, it all boils down to the story. Want to make a mature and complicated story that the audience will never be able to predict? You’ll need a cast of complex and unpredictable characters. Want to tell a more simple but compelling story? Keep it nice and simple. Which one you like better is up to your personal preference. But both have their value.

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