Before I leave off the idea of great characters being characters you can argue about, I need to touch on the role plot can play in making a character one people can genuinely discuss.
I wrote a while back about internal conflict and Greek tragedy, and how true tragedy comes about when a character is pulled in different directions by two conflicting virtues or value systems. No matter what he or she does, something revered or some person is wronged.
This kind of dilemma is a great way to incorporate plot as a device to create characters people can have honest conversations about, conversations that lead to self-discovery. (I’m an academic in a lot of ways, so these kinds of discussions are like gold for me.)
An example from reviews (Spoiler Alert!)
In one of my novels, “The Crimson League,” I have a character named Menikas. He has a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” situation of sorts at one point: he can restrain a subordinate from rushing off to try to save some friends in mortal danger–a scenario that will likely get her killed too–or he can let her go and hope she succeeds. When he stops her, it’s a matter of opinion whether you think he made the right call: was the case desperate enough to justify his intervention? I’ve been so, so shocked to see the varied responses to Menikas from book reviews. Here’s one take:
“I think the main reason that I don’t like him is that he is too focused on his job, and while that is beneficial it still causes problems within his group. Had he been more lenient in his leadership I think the major rift that forms could have been prevented.”
Here’s a completely different point of view from a different reviewer:
“Menikas always tried to do what was right, and not just for himself. He saved Kora’s life, but she didn’t appreciate it and refused to make peace with him. I’m confident that if I had been in the same situation, I’d have done the same thing Menikas did.”
Unintentionally on my part, the plot puts Menikas in a classic “tragic hero” situation; this automatically opens his response to that situation up for debate. What surprised me was that readers might take his side, because I didn’t myself. I never considered they might. I get too emotionally involved in what is going on in the story at the time to feel he did the right thing…. but the reviewer who agrees with his choice makes a very, very sound argument for it, one I can’t flaw.
Anyway, my overall point: use plot to assist characterization. When your characters are forced to choose between two evils or two mutually exclusive goods, then automatically, that character gains depths. You and your readers will have emotional responses as strong as any the characters do, and be drawn in.
Of course, this is not the only way to lend your characters depth: not by any means. It’s just something that I know I’ve done, so I wanted to share it as a possibility, maybe to spur some thought.