Writing depth into a character is difficult. Creating a character who is flawed, complex, and deep is not an easy task. In my early books (15-20 years ago), all my characters were flawless. They were honest, strong, noble, and if they were villains then they were at least stoic villains. These superficial characters were the creation of a superficial writer. That is, the younger me hadn’t gained enough self-knowledge to be deep enough to create deep characters. Even to this day, I struggle with simple things like lying in fictional characters.
I am naturally an honest person. It was difficult for me to accept that other people lie. My villains used to be honest people, which doesn’t make any sense to me now because an honest villain can’t be evil. They must be dishonest in some way. When I was a young man, though, my world was turned upside down when I discovered something about myself: I actually did lie. I lied to myself by telling myself that my weaknesses weren’t really weaknesses, but unique virtues that only I had. For example: I am not manipulative, I am kind hearted by tricking people into doing what’s best for them, which is actually only what’s best for me.
When a person realises this self-dishonesty about themselves, they gain depth to their character. This influences my writing. Now my villains do lie. They lie to themselves. They tell themselves they aren’t really evil, but the good guys. They tell themselves they are the ones trying to fix the problems. In Space Fall, the villain Kaylim tells himself that by attempting to kill Kimberley, he isn’t actually being murderous, but protecting his people. He tells himself that he’s acting in the best interests of his people, but he is really trying to consolidate his grip on power. My self-knowledge has helped me to write better.
If I had written the character of Kaylim 20 years ago, then he would have just been honest and said he was trying to murder Kimberley because she threatened her grip on power. That kind of self-knowledge and honesty only exists in a sociopath who has never been challenged. Such types of people are rare, yet the person who lies to themselves about their true intentions is ubiquitous. For me, I want my characters more reflective of reality because it challenges the reader. It is challenging to have a villain who insists they are good. The reader has to deal with both the protagonists and the antagonists claiming the moral high ground and it forces the reader to question “who is truly good and who merely thinks they are good?”
I first encountered this is in the character of Davros from Doctor Who. Davros is evil. He murders everyone who has ever helped him. Yet even as he is doing so he insists he is the hero, the one with the moral high ground. Even when talking about starting new wars and carrying out genocides, he lists complex arguments as to why mass murder is the best thing to do. Some of Davros’ speeches are inspiring and yet he is evil. What I think appeals so much about Davros’ character is that he is the cunning sociopath without a conscience, yet he understands conscience enough to manipulate those who do have one perfectly.
I think part of being a good writer is about getting to know oneself very well, to know ones flaws and failures. Also, being observant enough to see other people’s flaws. The better I can understand myself, the deeper and richer I can make my characters.