The Importance of Complex Characters By Jacqueline Friedland

Photo by Rebecca Weiss
A couple of years ago, there was a debate in the literary world about “likeable” characters.  The question, essentially, boiled down to this: must a character be unpleasant, whether angry or aggressive, selfish, or all gloom-and-doom in order to be taken seriously as a literary character?  When the debate arose, the focus was primarily on female characters— if a female protagonist has too many redeemable qualities as a person, does this detract from her substance as a character in a story?  This query nagged at me and took on a new shape during my writing Trouble the Water, as I watched my two main protagonists undergo journeys of personal growth that left them both decidedly more pleasant than the people they were when the story began.  The question I needed to answer was whether depth and meaning are negated by personal recoveries?
My own take, as a reader, is that if I am going to spend hours reading a novel, hanging out with characters, I would much prefer to like them.  I will feel more invested in the outcomes of the trials they navigate in their stories, I will care more deeply, and I will enjoy myself to a greater degree.  And if that’s how I feel when reading, imagine how I would feel writing my own story.  If I am going to invest months (ok, years) writing a main character, I cannot imagine the torture of writing someone awful.  I am not a person who gravitates toward sad or scary books, or movies, or music.  I don’t like haunted houses, or roller coasters, either.  I do not put myself, deliberately, into situations that make me feel uncomfortable for one reason or another, and that would include creating a character I wanted nothing to do with.  That said, certainly roller coasters and horror flicks and haunted houses are enjoyed by many.  They are just not for me.
I am a “fixer” by nature, and I would simply be incapable of allowing any miserable protagonists to remain wretched forever.  As I neared the conclusion of Trouble the Water and allowed Abigail Milton and Doulas Elling to show an increasing number of compensatory characteristics, I realized that I take pride in my optimism, that I have what psychologists refer to these days as a “growth mindset”.  If that growth mindset results in my continued creation of characters who people might actually want to sit next to on the subway or share a meal with, so be it, right?  I believe things can and should get better, that one reason we read is for the satisfaction of seeing one or another character grow, transform, or otherwise improve herself. In my estimation, characters should be complicated, but open to the possibility of change and positive developments, and that it is this very type of progress that often gives readers an experience that might perhaps be described as both substantive and uplifting.  In other words, meaning and happiness can peacefully and successfully coexist.
About the author: 
 Jacqueline Friedland holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD 
from NYU Law School. She practiced as an attorney in New York before returning to school to receive her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in New York with her husband, four children, and a tiny dog. 

Purchase a copy of TROUBLE THE WATER here and it  is  her debut novel. 

Visit her on her social media platform: 


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