Complex Characters vs. Flip-Flopping Characters

One of my favorite things to talk about these days is building complex characters through character buy-in. It’s the idea of committing to the story during an inciting incident when your character decides, “Screw it, I’m all in, let’s see where this crazy adventure takes me.” It’s very important, especially in fantasy, action, paranormal, etc. stories where there’s a certain amount of disbelief or world-building that needs to be overcome. I mean, Percy Jackson didn’t exactly imagine his life as a demi-god when he was just starting out. It took him a little while to get on the roller coaster and strap himself into the seat.

complex characters, what makes a character interesting
Save the flip-flopping for the beach!

You Need Solid Layers In Your Story

Fiction is built, ideally, in layers. We have the basic foundation of a story, then we layer something on as the plot advances or a relationship changes, then we layer the next development onto what exists already, then the next, then the next. It’s important, then, to solidify each layer before building on the next. We are, in essence, creating something out of nothing when writing fiction. The world doesn’t exist until you establish it. The relationships don’t come to life until you define them. The plot doesn’t mean anything until we combine the events with your protagonist’s objectives, motivations, and development.

Flip-Flopping Weakens the Layers

Done right, this delicious fiction layer cake will be very satisfying. But the whole thing tends to fall apart if each layer isn’t solidified properly before the next one is poured on. An instance where I notice this issue is when a character flip-flops in their opinions about a plot point or character. It’s one thing to consider one issue with multiple layers: that’s called building complex characters. But when a protagonist can’t decide whether they can trust Character A, and this goes on for five chapters, I say it’s flip-flopping.

Complexity vs Flip-Flopping

An Example of Complexity

Let’s extrapolate on this a bit more. The protagonist wants to trust A, but A just told one of their secrets to the antagonist. Your character is really pissed off at A, but they also believe that A is the only person who can help them along in the story. So, with some nagging doubt in their mind, they decide to trust A because the benefits outweigh the risks.

What I’ve described above is a complex situation, and it’s what makes a character interesting. The trust is established, but there’s something going on below the surface that colors it a certain shade of wariness. The most important part, though, is that the protagonist has decided to commit to trusting A. They have bought in.

An Example of Flip-Flopping

Compare this to the same scenario. And let’s say the decision is made in chapter one to trust A. But then in chapter two, the protagonist avoids A’s phone calls, saying “I just can’t trust them.” In chapter three, your character crawls back to A to ask a favor, acting for all the world like there’s an intact relationship. In chapter four, the protagonist spurns A’s friendly advances, vowing to go through the rest of the plot alone.

But didn’t we say we trusted A in chapter one? Why does the tide keep shifting? To go back and forth on a commitment sends the reader for a loop. “I thought we agreed on A, and now the rules have been rewritten!” I’ll say as I’m reading a manuscript where flip-flopping is an issue.

Flip-Flopping Doesn’t Advance the Plot Or Build Complex Characters

The bigger problem here is that flip-flopping isn’t an action. Taking one step forward and one step back doesn’t advance either the plot or the relationship (in this case, the protagonist and A). There’s a slight distinction between committing to conflicting viewpoints about a character because of advances in the plot. For example, the protagonist can fully buy-in to trusting A, and only after some deep betrayal will they make up their mind to forge ahead alone. That’s building complex characters, and it’s the evolution of a fraught relationship. But the key to what makes a character interesting is commitment. Buying in. Without it, the protagonist changes their mind without investing, resulting in flip-flopping and leaving the plot and relationship development stuck.

Commit!

Some writers think that flip-flopping is complex, and in some ways, a safer answer to “what makes a character interesting?” Their characters have angst, but they don’t actually go down any wrong paths. They just keep changing their minds. I don’t find that this is beneficial in the long run, in fact, it’s maybe even a bit shallow. Instead of flip-flopping, commit! Buy in!

Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you build complex characters who commit to their decisions.

3 Replies to “Complex Characters vs. Flip-Flopping Characters”

  1. I think the crucial part is what you said, about changing your mind after taking the wrong path – that makes sense, to go it alone after betrayal. The character is feeling angry, betrayed, even stupid. And it’s a learning opportunity for character growth.

    I also think interiority is important when a character is committed to character A, for example, but still doesn’t trust fully. Interiority is key to showing how yes, they’re working with A, but I’m still going to protect myself, maybe by keeping some info secret. It’s a question of strategy in this case, and interiority really shows it.

    Awesome post, thank you 🙂

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