Beyond the Cliché: How to Create Characters that Fascinate

By Becca Puglisi of  The Bookshelf Muse

How many characters have been created since the first story was told? Thousands? Gajillions?

With so many characters floating around out there, it’s not surprising that many of them have been recycled over time:

Merlin, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi
Bilbo Baggins, Han Solo, Katniss Everdeen
Cinderella’s stepmother, The queen from Snow White, Maleficent

If you want to create characters that fascinate, make them likable, relatable, flawed – and unique.

How do we do it?

How do we recreate yet another mentor/reluctant hero/villain without playing into the cliché?

Give him quirks. What makes a person (and a character) individual are their unique little habits and mannerisms. One good method for coming up with fitting quirks is to look at the people around you. Here are a few true life examples from my inner circle (family therapy will probably follow):
My mother-in-law is an extremely fair person. When her kids were younger, there were always two stack of presents under the tree, one for each child, with the same number of presents in each. One of the stacks also contained an envelope with a random amount of cash–$3.48, or something, because she’d spent that much on the other child and wanted everything to come out fair. Quirky.

My husband’s defining character trait is efficiency, and much of his goofiness comes directly from this. If I’m cooking, he turns off the oven when five minutes are left to save electricity. In the winter, he cracks the oven door after I’ve removed the food so as not to waste the heat. Goofy.
My dad, though a highly intelligent and rational human being, is a complete conspiracy theorist. Wacky.

You don’t have to look far to find more idiosyncrasies than you could ever use in your fiction. But if real life fails you, look at lists for inspiration, such as this one, or this blog post on types of quirks. Regardless of where you find them, it’s usually best to choose a quirk that exemplifies and magnifies a trait of your character’s. Then, he’s not just doing some random weird thing–his habit makes sense, and it will ring true to the reader.

Show your character’s individuality by providing contrast.

Surround your character with people who are different from him, and you’ll emphasize his uniqueness. Take Cinna, for example, in The Hunger Games. The Capitol stylists were all superficial and flamboyant. Cinna was unassuming and deep. Subtle. By clearly showing the norm in his world, Collins highlights Cinna’s uniqueness and makes him stand out as individual.

Ensure uniqueness by giving your character conflicting traits.

We’ve all read about certain kinds of characters: the ambitious co-worker, the brainy honor student, the doting grandmother. To make these characters unique, give them conflicting traits that you don’t normally find in the stereotype.

Many grandmothers are doting, but what if they’re also manipulative and self-serving?

Ambitious co-workers are usually backstabbing and underhanded. How about creating one who’s loyal with a strong sense of right and wrong?

Create multi-dimensional characters by giving them traits that don’t usually go together, and you’ll have a fresh take on an old cliché. (For more ideas on this, check out the character trait thesaurus at The Bookshelf Muse.)

Surprise readers by not giving them what they expect.

As much as we try not to stereotype, we all do it to some degree. We see someone who looks a certain way and we already have an idea what kind of person he is, and how he’ll act. Readers do the same thing. Capitalize on this tendency by making your character look one way but act another.

This technique is used brilliantly in Daughter of Smoke and Bone. In this story, Brimstone is a big-time demon with one foot in the human world. His appearance is as evil and frightening as you’d expect, but Taylor avoids the cliché by making the demon a good guy. Unexpected and intriguing, this twist makes the reader want to read on to find out what the character, and the author, are up to.

The bottom line is that readers like the unexpected–in plot lines, in endings, and in characters.

Surprise them by giving them a brand new, never-before-seen hero or villain, and you’ll gain the reader’s interest and maybe even their attention all the way to your final page.

Becca Puglisi is a YA fantasy and historical fiction writer, SCBWI member, and co-host of The Bookshelf Muse, an on-line resource for writers. She also has a number of magazine publications under her belt. Her book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is scheduled for release in the spring of 2012.

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Becca Puglisi

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