It’s hard to come up with characters who are believable yet don’t sound like every other character out there. It’s especially easy to fall into this trap with certain archetypes, like witty sidekicks or wise old mentors. Unfortunately, a recent book that I started had a whole cast of clichés: the jaded, super-sarcastic teen girl hero; the loving but confused single parent; a villain in the form of a Queen Bee Mean Girl. As for the love interest and sidekick…I didn’t stick around long enough to meet them.
But even one clichéd character may be too much; you don’t want to give readers a reason to lose interest or roll their eyes when they’re introduced to a character they’ve seen a dozen times. Character creation is one of our passions at Writers Helping Writers, thanks to the research and practice we put in while writing our negative trait and positive trait thesaurus books. Here are some tips we’ve learned on how to write believable and interesting characters without repeating the stereotypes:
Explore the character’s backstory to discover her wounds. It’s easy to throw together a bunch of attributes and flaws when creating characters. But traits develop organically out a combination of factors: upbringing, environment, basic needs, morals, past wounds, personal values, etc. It is this unique combination of elements that results in a truly unique character. To avoid recreating a character who already exists, delve deeply into her backstory. Doing so will give you the information you need to figure out exactly who she is today.
Once you’ve explored the character’s backstory, use that information to choose a combination a flaws and attributes that make sense, but are unique. For example, it makes sense for a character who was once the victim of a home invasion to be over-protective and paranoid. For me, the mention of those flaws instantly brings to mind an image—a stereotype that I’ve seen a million times. Paranoia is a logical result of this kind of traumatizing experience, but what if you combined it with other flaws or attributes to turn the stereotype on its ear? Maybe your character was raised in a very proper household where any kind of emotional extreme was taboo. So now you’ve got a genteel, mannerly character who’s scared of her own shadow—but has to hide her fears out of a desire to maintain the right image.
Creating unique characters is really just a matter of digging into their history and coming up with traits that make sense for them. For help in this area, we created a number of related resources on our Tools for Writers page, including the Reverse Backstory Tool, the Attribute Target Tool, and the Character Pyramid Tool.
Explore the positive side of negative traits, and vice versa. Clichéd characters are seen as clichés because they’re easy to read. They’re cardboard. One-dimensional. Which is ironic because character traits are anything but.
Look at John Bender, from the movie The Breakfast Club. He’s hostile, and embodies many of the expected negative associations that go with that trait: he’s volatile, verbally abusive, and has trouble connecting with others. But hostility also has some positive aspects that John exhibits. He’s fearless and uninhibited, often saying what other people are too timid to say themselves. The positive sides of this flaw make him more than just an angry character. They make him interesting and somewhat endearing because people value fearlessness and admire those who speak their minds. We want to evoke those endearing feelings in our readers, so make sure to explore both sides of your character’s defining traits and you’re sure to come up with someone unique and compelling.
Don’t forget the quirks and idiosyncrasies. Certain character types—like adventure heroes and detectives—easily fall into stereotypes. If you want your hero to be different, give him something interesting that will make him stand out from the crowd. Indiana Jones? Afraid of snakes. Captain Jack Sparrow is a cowardly pirate. And for those of you who remember Kojak, what comes to mind when you hear that name? Bald guys and lollipops, right? Mission accomplished.
A word of caution regarding quirks, though: if they’re thrown in off-handedly, they can feel clumsy and contrived. Find something that makes sense for your character based on his backstory and personality and you’ll have something that is believable rather than gimmicky.
Add an inner goal. Another reason detectives and adventurers tend to resemble each other is because they all have the same goal: to find the treasure or solve the case. But what if your character also has an internal goal—something he needs to overcome or wants to achieve that will result in personal growth?
In The Bone Collector, Lincoln Rhyme is an ex-forensics specialist on the trail of a serial killer in New York City. This is his outer goal: to find the killer. Just like any other detective story, eh? Except that Lincoln Rhyme is a paraplegic. That’s enough to make him interesting, but there’s more: it’s made clear from the beginning of the story that the thing Rhyme wants more than anything is to die. He’s made plans for his “final transition” and is seemingly at peace with it because he thinks this will make him more happy and fulfilled.
By adding an internal goal, Deaver adds a dimension to his main character that makes him different from other detectives. Keep this in mind for your own heroes. For more information about internal goals and motivations, check out Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell.
Character creation is tricky, but with a little extra backstory digging and these tips, there’s no limit to the number of unique and resonant characters that we can create. Happy writing!
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.