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.

    About the author

      Becca Puglisi

    • Yes I agree with the tips on characterization. A story needs a character the reader cares about and who is not one dimensional. A bad actor of a character need not be completely devoid of positive traits. I have tried to include this kind of logical and emotional rounding out in my own fiction.

      • becca puglisi says:

        I agree, David. Multi-dimensional characters are a necessity if a story’s going to hold my interest.

    • Fantastic concrete suggestions. When I think character flaws, I think of all the characters in the show ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

      • becca puglisi says:

        Oooo. I’ve heard great things about that show and have it on my Apple TV list of shows to watch. Can’t wait to get started!

    • Wonderful post! I love quirky characters that are not what I expect–both in real life and in fiction. : )

      • becca puglisi says:

        I agree, Cynthia! If I could just be more observant IRL, I know my characters would be so much more interesting.

    • Great advice and incites. I like to place my character in a particular profession, one that I am familiar with or totally research. We often take our work habits and bring them into our daily lives–consciously and unconsciously. I often write about medical professions as you can’t leave that kind of thinking at the office.
      [email protected] Boomer Highway

      • becca puglisi says:

        That’s a great point, how people often bring their work habits home. We so often think of the little quirks people do at home or in social situations, but plenty of our habits come right from work. Thanks, Beth!

    • Great practical advice, Becca. The quirks you mentioned work because people identify with them. I’ve shut the oven off with five minutes left. So, if I see that particular quirk in a character, it registers instant recognition and lets me see a “real” person in that character.

      Providing contrast and surprising the reader are other great points to remember when writing. Thanks for sharing. I have to shut the oven now.

      • becca puglisi says:

        Vincent, my husband will be glad to know he’s not the only one who does this, lol.

    • PK Hrezo says:

      Tell it, sister! I love how you ladies always remind me to think outside the box with my characters. This next WIP I’m writing is gonna be in BIG thanks to Bookshelf Muse and all your great advice!

      • becca puglisi says:

        Oh yay! I can’t wait to hear what new ideas you come up with, PK!

    • Nice roundup of ideas. Thank you for sharing them.

      • becca puglisi says:

        Thanks for reading, Joanna.

    • It’s official…Becca is brilliant! Excellent post 🙂

      • becca puglisi says:

        Oh, Julie. Tell me more…

    • Great insight, Becca. I think Cinna really did stand out as unique, and is a great example. For me, this: “Surprise readers by not giving them what they expect.” is so important to keep at the forefront as we’re creating. I’m going to try harder to write to this tune in my next project!

      Angela

      • becca puglisi says:

        You know how important unpredictability is when reading a novel. And yet it’s just recently occurred to me to apply it when writing. So I’m with you. I’ll definitely be working on this in the future.

    • AWESOME post, Becca! Thank you! Hope you are recovering well.

      • becca puglisi says:

        Thanks, Martha. LASIK is a wonderful thing and the recovery’s pretty tame, so I’m doing great. Goodbye, glasses!!

    • Ava Jae says:

      This is a wonderful post with fantastic advice, Becca. Thank you! I’ve bookmarked it for future reference. 🙂

      I really like your example of Cinna–he was one of my favorite characters in The Hunger Games series largely because of his down-to-earth mentality and subtle thoughtfulness. The contrast to the other stylists really helped make him a memorable, powerful character.

      • Thanks, Ava. I loved Cinna, too, for the same reasons you listed. He was so quiet and understated; a character like that could easily be overlooked. But surrounding him with such ditzy and insubstantial counterparts made him totally memorable.

    • VERY INFORMATIVE.THANK YOU

    • Excellent advice! Almost all characters are archetypes anyway, so we have to give them unique idiosyncrasies to make them stand out.

      • I agree, Matt. The same could be said of query letters. They’re all so similar in structure, yet you’re the master of figuring out how to make each one stand out. Hmmmm. There may be a blog post in there somewhere… 😉

    • I totally agree. It’s really the little quirks (drinking coffee through a straw, tap water out of a wine glass) that make us who we are, that make us unique. I found that once I stopped watching TV – whose characters are flat and stereotypical – I stopped basing my characters off of how TV characters worked and started noticing the people around me, their quirks, their struggles, their conflicts, their joys. Communication isn’t always straight forward; situations don’t always tie up perfectly. Real life is the ultimate inspiration, really, to connect with others on a human “I get you” level.

      • Real life is the ultimate inspiration, really, to connect with others on a human “I get you” level.

        I fully connect with this sentiment. But I admit that it’s hard for me to observe strangers. I’m always afraid they’re going to find me watching them and think I’m a perv. It’s much easier for me to spy on loved ones, lol.

    • Sanna says:

      Hi,

      Very inspiring! I was just at a storytelling night the other day and got reminded of our stories and characters.

      Want to write more and better!!!!!!!!

      Thanks a lot!!

      Sincerely from Sweden,
      Sanna

      • You were at a storytelling recently? How awesome! I wish they had more of those in my area. What a great way to get inspired.

    • Cinna is a great example of how contrast works effectively. It’s the most underrated way to create a good character. Whenever I’m on the bus or having a short time to myself, Im working dialectics and trying to create contrast all the time.

      • Contrast is one of the hardest things to do well, imo; when I’m comparing two extremes, one of them always seems to come out cheesy and over-the-top. I definitely have to work on this one.

        • Michael says:

          I agree, I’m having that very same problem in the current story i’m writing. I don’t want the character to be too stereotypical, yet I don’t want to over do anything.

    • This is a wonderful, inspiring, educational post Becca. I will certainly use this as a reference from here on out. Thanks!


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