You know what I always loved about Stephen King? Not the plots — they were cool, but no, it was his characters. And his books I didn’t like? They were the ones, like Thinner, that didn’t have likable characters. I didn’t really care if the fat guy died of the gypsy’s curse. He was a jerk, and not a particularly interesting jerk.
And then there was Salem’s Lot, which really didn’t have that much plot, if you outline it. But he described this ideal little New England town so beautifully, I wanted to live there. And I loved the characters. They were all unique and perfectly drawn, even the minor characters. Especially the minor characters. I dreaded them becoming vampires. I missed them when the book was done.
The other plus to complex characters is, they’re unpredictable. They get into scrapes and tight places you don’t expect because you can’t pigeon-hole them. When a heroic guy has a weakness, something that has him teetering on the edge of seriously bad behavior, he suddenly finds himself questioning all those things mama taught him about the importance of being good. Maybe the reader will decide some part of the moral code isn’t something he believes in. Maybe the hero’s situation will reaffirm those ideas. What about bad guys? Is there anything more heart-warming than a bad guy who has a flash of compassion, who does something good and is then mystified about his behavior?
I like complex characters, but I have to admit, if the protagonist isn’t at least likable, I have trouble caring. I just don’t want to read the character’s story. There’s a certain series of vampire books in which the main male characters are really old-school when it comes to women — like, women should shut up and do what the big strong man tells them. I wish I could read the series, but I just can’t get past these male chauvanist main characters. But if you have a likable protagonist and a sneakily likable anagonist — bingo! Who do you root for? Tension, tension. Love that tension.
What really bugs me is a story that follows genre rules on characters. Romances are bad about that. The female lead is sweet, virginal, naive. Or she’s spicy, impetuous, independent (though the big strong man saves her butt repeatedly). The male lead is smart, smooth, capable, almost fatherly, and he always knows what the female lead should do.
You know how movies often have a character who boils down to “the girlfriend”? In romances, so often the male main character boils down to “the boyfriend” — amazing abs, perfect face, adores the female lead character beyond reason — think Edward in Twilight. So what happens when a romance bends those character rules? How much more interesting would Edward have been if he couldn’t stop biting Bella, if she was really afraid of him sometimes? If the guy in a romance wasn’t just capable but was somewhat controlling? If the female lead started off naive but grew savy and strong fighting off his control? If the male admits he has an issue and apologizes?
The best thing about complex characters is, they tend to cross genres. People who never read romance fall in love with one. People who never read science fiction think out of the box because of the great love story in a book. You gotta love crossing genres — more potential readers!