Crafting Complex (& Badass) Characters: Lessons from Peaky Blinders

Everyone loves a badass.

Han Solo.

Okoye.

Wolverine.

Furiosa.

Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

They’re among the most memorable characters in fiction because we admire them and want to emulate their badassery in our own lives.

But there’s a downside to writing BAMFs: if you’re not careful, an overload of coolness can reduce your protag into a cardboard cutout. Flat characters are (usually) boring ones, no matter how smooth their talk or flashy their fight scenes.

So how do you craft a badass? And how do you write one that isn’t as flat as the pages she’s printed on?

One word: status.

Status is a facet of characterization rarely discussed in writing books and blogs. But it’s critical to the subtext of every single scene you render.

What is status? Here’s a great definition courtesy of Story Trumps Structure by Steven James*:

In every social interaction, one person has (or attempts to have) a more dominant role. Those in authority or those who want to exert authority use a collection of verbal and nonverbal cues to gain and maintain higher status.

… Status can be shown through tension, how characters handle setbacks, or just in how they deal with everyday encounters with other people.

How do you show status? As subtly as possible. This is where “show, don’t tell” advice needs to be heeded. I can’t tell you that my MC is like, so super duper cool and awesome because it’d be lazy, and my reader will be thinking “oh yeah? prove it” anyway. Every word choice regarding a characters’ body language, tone, dialogue, attitude, and response to conflict reveals status.

Characteristics of high status:

  • loose, relaxed demeanor, gestures, & gait
  • strong eye contact
  • courageous, confident, & calm
  • self-restrained

Characteristics of low status:

  • fidgety, tense, or frazzled demeanor
  • darting or averted eye gaze
  • apologetic & placating (alternatively: arrogant & self-congratulatory)
  • loses control (of both self & situation)

The best advice on establishing dominant traits: “stillness is power*

To show that your MC has high status, have him: 1) delay or pause before answering questions 2) keep his body posture & facial expression still 3) speak calmly with a steady gaze.

My favorite display of “stillness is power” is embodied by Tommy Shelby, the MC of Peaky Blinders, a BBC show that follows a violent crime family in post-WWI Birmingham, England. At the end of S1E2, Tommy and his two brothers are confronted by Billy Kimber, a crime boss who controls the local racetracks. Kimber recently learned the Peaky Blinders conspired to fix one his races.

Image result for billy kimber and the shelby brothers

In the following exchange, Tommy effortlessly maintains high status through his steady, deliberate body language and responses.

Kimber: “By the way, which one am I talking to? Who’s the boss?”

Arthur Shelby: “Well, I’m the oldest.”

Kimber: [scoffs] “Clearly.”

John Shelby: “Are you laughing at my brother?”

Kimber: “Right, he’s the oldest [points at Arthur], you’re the thickest [points at John]. I’m told the boss is Tommy and I’m guessing that’s you [points at Tommy], ’cause you’re looking me up and down like I’m a fucking tart.”

Tommy [after a slight pause, he responds with a steady gaze & calm tone of voice]: “I want to know what you want.”

Kimber’s assistant [who mirrors Tommy’s calm, controlled demeanor]: “There were suspicious betting patterns at Kempton Park. A horse called Monaghan Boy. He won by a length twice & then he lost with 3,000 pounds bet on him.”

Tommy: “Which one am I talking to? Which one of you is the boss?”

After the man explains that he’s Kimber’s adviser & accountant, Kimber yells: “And I’m the fucking boss. Okay, right, end of parley.”

Kimber then proceeds into expletive-laced rant in which he screams: “I am Billy Kimber, and I run the races.”

A few things to note:

  1. Although Tommy technically has less “power” (since he’s only a small-time gang leader at this point), he has the most power in this scene because he’s able to maintain his calm, controlled poise.
  2. Tommy says “which one of you is the boss?” because he’s responding to the accountant’s calm demeanor. This pisses Kimber off because he realizes he looks weak.
  3. Kimber tries to regain power by screaming and yelling; however, this loss of control only serves to lower his status even more.

Take-away: if you want your character to maintain high status in a scene, make him calm and self-possessed, especially in the face of stress, conflict, or danger.

Though Tommy Shelby consistently maintains high status in his business dealings and power-maneuvers, there are situations when he exhibits lower status. For example, he suffers PTSD from his time as a WWI soldier. Though he’s careful to hide his mental and emotional trauma, there are times– such as when he’s with his love interest, Grace– when this vulnerability emerges.

These scenes are important because they lend dimensionality to his character and make him more real.

Want a badass? Show high status through her dialogue, actions, and choices. Want to make your badass authentic? Don’t give her the same status in every situation.

Now go watch Peaky Blinders!

*James, Steven. Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules. Writer’s Digest Books, 2014. pp 246-251.

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