Deb Vanasse | Complicated Characters

When I launched the project that would become my book Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold, one of the first people I told was my friend and fellow author Claire Rudolf-Murphy. Claire and Jane Haigh wrote Gold Rush Women, where I first read about Kate.

There was a pause in Claire’s response. “Oh,” she said. “Kate’s…complicated.”

I have to admit, this gave me pause. I knew there were vastly different takes on the person Kate had been—that was a prime motivator for me to dig deeper into her story. But complicated sounded ominous.

Much research and a manuscript later, I realized how helpful it is for an author to explore complicated characters. Kate was indeed complicated, but I was able to sort the facts of her life into ways that made sense for readers. The public has embraced her in all her complexities. Since the book came out, Kate, who was a Canadian citizen, has received coverage in prominent Canadian news sources. She was nominated to be on new Canadian currency. In the Yukon, a big mural has been painted, depicting her life’s story. She’s being inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame, and I had the privilege of being filmed in her hometown as part of a video that’s being made in conjunction with that honor.

Not bad for a complicated character.

Still, I’ve had to remind myself now and then that complicated characters are good for stories. The project I’m working on now features a character described as “dogmatic, logical, intemperate, courageous, tactless, idealistic, and fundamentally quixotic.”

Yikes. But I know he’ll be great on the page. I just need to keep front and center a few tenets of writing about complicated characters, whether they’re real or imagined:

  • We learn in school about heroes have a tragic flaw. But in truth, we all have multiple flaws. No sense oversimplifying that.
  • Don’t get so attached to your character that you pussy-foot around her negative traits. Negative traits create tension in your narrative, especially as your character develops some self-regard.
  • Look for complications that you may share with your character. Those places of emotional connection can serve your work well. But keep in mind also that your character isn’t you. Give her space to be herself.
  • Be wary of assumptions. We tend to think one dot should lead clearly to the next. A narrative is more interesting when the journey is complex, as are many of our own life’s journeys.
  • Your job as a writer is to show readers where to look. You can’t just dump a bunch of random, disparate traits on the page and leave readers to sort everything out—that’s simply not satisfying enough for the reader. Even complex characters need simple tags for readers to hang onto.

Named by Library Journal as “one of Alaska’s leading storytellers,” Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Her most recent novel, Cold Spell, “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds” (Booklist). Wealth Woman, her “deeply researched and richly imagined” gold rush biography of Kate Carmack, was named a True West “Best of the West” selection.

2 thoughts on “Deb Vanasse | Complicated Characters”

  1. Excellent essay on character-building. Thanks to the author and to 49 Writers for Sharing.
    I have been trying to write a novel this year, and found it a real challenge to give a causative childhood to my villain.

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