Do We Need to Write Complex Characters?

I’m reading the first Harry Potter and the first Dune novel, finishing a chapter from one then alternating to the next, to see if there is any commonality between these two different and popular novels. To be frank, there’s a massive difference between the writing styles, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, with Dune containing greater depth and requiring more concentration. I did notice one commonality, the stories begin with extremely simple villains which have very little complexity (in Harry Potters case, not so much villains but bad step-parents).

We’re told that complex characters are better characters, but is that really the case? I hear many people talk about John Carpenter’s Horror movies, suggesting that the reason they work is the faceless nature of the villains. I doubt anyone would argue that Michael Myers is a particularly deep character. Carpenter was inspired heavily by Westerns, and one of the most highly regarded Westerns is High Plains Drifter, where the central character is a good example of an anti-hero, except he does not have the positive aspects of an anti-hero. He’s more a villain-hero and once again, is quite simple.

Next we can move to Game of Thrones, is Ramsey Bolton a complex character, is Joffrey, is Tormund, is Jon Snow? No, they aren’t. The list of characters I’ve mentioned so far is so diverse that finding commonalities is actually difficult. Myers and Clint Eastwood character in High Plains Drifter are mysterious, Joffrey is sufficiently sadistic and threatening to our main protagonists that every scene with him carries tension. Tormund is funny, and Jon Snow is admirable but prone to making mistakes, something which adds tension to every decision he has to make.

As I progress through these novels it is entirely possible that these characters will be further explained, and perhaps they will become more complex. Regardless, the point still stands. Excellent stories can be written about characters who are rather simple, and once thought about, there are vast numbers of popular characters such as this (Hannibal Lector comes to mind). Realistically, the only feature that all the listed characters have is that they’re interesting to watch or read, complicated or not. Something that serves the story, drives the narrative, that scares the reader or makes them laugh. Hopefully these novels are full of characters like that.

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