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How to write characters (not clichés)

Characters are what bring life and energy to your plot.

You may have rich, compelling material for a dramatic story, but if we’re not interested in spending time with your protagonist, if we aren’t invested in their journey and growth, then even the most exciting plot in the world will be in danger of ringing hollow.

It’s critical to a story’s success that your characters be captivating enough to linger long after the last page. It’s also critical that the action of the story be ‘character-driven’ — and for that to happen, your characters must have depth and autonomy. 

Before you dismiss character profiling as a waste of time, or if you’re thinking that you can wait til later because you want to get on with plotting, try reading this article first. Then, before you get going on the writing, create character profiles for your protagonist, antagonist, their sidekicks and best friends, and any other significant characters you sense need it. You’ll be glad you did.

Understanding Your Characters

In Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, Michael Tierno has written:

The function of the poet [i.e. the writer] is not to say what has happened, but to say the kind of thing that would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity.

Basically, you aren’t here to dictate events — you’re here to write down things ‘as they happen.’ Maybe that feels a little strange to say, considering that you’re the one with the pen making these things up… but the trick is to create characters whose motivations and actions all make sense. They have to act logically within the story they’re in, otherwise the whole thing will fall apart.

Famous authors have spoken of characters taking on a life of their own, wanting to do something their plotlines hadn’t accommodated, because they have taken on life in their imagination (we assume for the better, because it’s typically characters we fall in love with, not events).

How do you start to understand characters as human, though, not as chess pieces?

You’ll need to know them as well as possible. You’ll need to be able to answer as many questions about your character as you can, when you begin to build a character profile. We’ve a few reasons why any conscientious writer shouldn’t skimp on this.

Archetypes vs. Stereotypes

How do you build characters that are human, avoiding caricature or stereotype?

It’s perfectly fine to root your characters in a classic model — the Reluctant Hero, the Clown, the Lover — because we instinctively understand these stories. There’s a reason that the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck are models of archetypes: we can see ourselves and our journeys in them quite easily! The danger comes from relying too much on cliché, or an idea of how certain people should act or be.

Thriller author Christopher Rice has shared the female stock characters of police procedurals he’s desperate to avoid, like the nagging wife, the ‘ice-queen bureaucrat’ or the ‘babe-assassin’ (‘on the surface she seems like an attempt at gender equality … [but] if we never get a real explanation for who she is, how she got that way, she just ends up being a cardboard character’).

Fantasy writer Samantha Shannon (who created a criminal heroine with depth, in Paige Mahoney of The Bone Season) has also argued the case for complexity:

Complicated women are still treated like they’re a curiosity. … We don’t keep marvelling at “strong male characters”.

Male characters can fall into a version of this trap, too, if they’re rendered as handsome romantic caricatures or burly, brusque brawlers rather than real people.

So how can you avoid these things and write your characters with sensitivity and feeling?

Firstly, by drawing out of your own well of human emotions and experiences.

Russian director Constantin Stanislavski developed training methods still used by actors today. In his book Building a Character, he offers guidance to actors (applicable to writers) who seek to ‘build’ characters out of stereotypical ideas or images, rather than from their own bank of emotional experiences.

Stanislavski shares examples of cliché in Building a Character:

A professional soldier … holds himself stiffly, marches around … speaks in a loud, barking tone out of habit. … A peasant spits … wipes his mouth of the tail of his sheepskin coat. An aristocrat always carries a top hat … his speech is affected. … These are … clichés. They are taken from life. … But they do not contain the essence of [a] character.

Writer Scarlett Thomas, examining Stanislavski’s writing, builds on his musings in Monkeys with Typewriters:

We could equally say that the chav wears a hoody and trainers and carries a can of lager … the geek has pale skin and acne and glasses. … Stanislavski’s work represents a profound rejection of cliché, stereotype and commonplace assumptions. … Stanislavski also teaches us to look for the motivation behind the action. … Begin with the character’s desire and build up from there, otherwise characterisation will be patronising.

Following this, Scarlett Thomas encourages writers to uncover what Stanislavski calls a ‘super-objective’ in characters:

Examples of super-objectives are ‘I wish to be comfortable’, ‘I wish to be perfect’, ‘I wish to be in control’, ‘I wish to be loved’, ‘I wish to be a success’. … With one wish, what would your character want?

During her novel The End of Mr Y, for instance, Scarlett Thomas has protagonist Ariel Manto admit her ‘wish’ to another character: she wants to know everything.

This filters down into Ariel’s less significant actions, too (rendering everything significant, after all). ‘I wish to know everything’ as a super-objective accounts for Ariel buying a rare, cursed book with all the money she has left to live on (not caring that she now won’t be able to eat).

Your own character needn’t be conscious of a ‘super-objective’, an overarching character motivation – and it’s better if they’re not, perhaps. We as human beings typically aren’t aware, either. We may be aware of various major goals and needs, compelling us to act. As a writer, though, you’ll need to be conscious yourself.

Why does your character want something?

Maybe they want money, but is this because they want to be wildly successful, to show off? Or is this because they’re poor and just want to be comfortable?

Your character’s specific longings and actions should feed back into one vague but dominant, all-encompassing wish.

Know the nature of that wish, and why it’s there. It’s your character’s emotional heart and heartbeat.

Consider your character’s background, too, their day-to-day life now and in times past. How does this feed into desire, into their nature?

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for instance, the Mirror of Erised illustrates Stanislavski’s principles when Albus Dumbledore points out to Harry that harried, teased Ron Weasley sees himself distinguished, without his brothers and family, the best of them all. Isolated Harry, who’s lived in a cupboard for ten years, sees himself in the mirror with a loving, but lost, family.

Such longings aren’t viewed in the mirror by accident.

Start with your character’s desire and let this help you map out their inner nature. You’ll then be on the path to creating characters with depth, who are fully human.

Avoid Common Clichés

You’ll probably have encountered ‘stock’ characters or cliché characters before. The glasses-wearing nerd, the mustache-twirling villain, the damsel-in-distress who can’t do a damn thing for herself… no human being you’ve ever met fits so neatly into such simplistic boxes! Adding in ‘rogue’ elements to subvert clichés like this is one way of initially working against your own subconscious biases in writing characters.

Fiona Griffiths, in Harry Bingham’s thriller Talking to the Dead, is a gifted, morose protagonist recovering from Cotard’s Syndrome, but this isn’t incidental. She puts herself in hazardous situations in her empathy and determination to uncover victims’ stories.

In Robert Galbraith’s crime series, opening with The Cuckoo’s Calling, protagonist Cormoran Strike is an army veteran turned private detective. Strike never ‘marches’, never speaks ‘in a loud, barking tone’, as per Stanislavski’s cliché. Strike is reserved, brusque but often uncertain, and has a prosthetic limb after losing part of his leg in Afghanistan (occasionally affecting his mobility).

Strike’s prosthetic limb isn’t just incidental, either. It is indicative of his past trauma, his identification with sufferers of violence, and motive for the work he does. It’s not illogical to guess past trauma feeds into Strike’s emotional reticence with on- and off-partner Charlotte (who soon marries someone else), later with deuteragonist and new romantic interest Robin, at first.

All of these are examples of ways to add subversive, original elements to your characters — without them being incidental or irrelevant to the story you’re trying to tell, or without hijacking them and turning the story on its head in a way that feels random.

Circles And Starts

Should characterisation really come first in novel-plotting? Or is it the plotting itself?

It’s a little bit like asking about the chicken or the egg (although of course we all know the answer to that one…) — because inspiration can come from anywhere! Start where your imagination wants to start, but know this: characters must ultimately drive a plot, propel it forward.

If your characters don’t act in ways that are plausible (as Aristotle indicated all those years ago), your plot is in terrible danger of falling apart — and once your reader questions a character in this sense, your narrative spell is broken.

Things also become less interesting when characters aren’t decidedly at the heart of storytelling.

Let’s take romance as a genre or a device in fiction (i.e. as plot or subplot) to explore that idea.

Writers continue to visit and revisit romance in stories, because it resonates with us all, often transcending genre. It is the characters, though, that elevate romance as formula out of the mechanical, making a story human.

Taking two classics with potential – a spirited heroine challenges her moralising hero, a selfless heroine solaces her heartbroken hero – most readers care if a certain Miss Bennet marries in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, fewer (generally) care if a certain Miss Price marries in Jane Austen’s previous novel, Mansfield Park.

In Pride and Prejudice, a relationship develops in action and conversation, with resulting character growth in the span of the action. Lizzy and Darcy retain strength of character, yet soften and mature as they listen, learn from and fall in love with the other.

In Mansfield Park, nothing much prompts heroine or hero to grow. We’re told, not shown, how love turns from fraternal to romantic in just a couple of passages at the novel’s end. As a result, it’s a bit harder to connect with this story.

As fictional characters, the point is that Jane Austen’s characters were never just in want of a spouse but they underwent an emotional journey, and this is what makes readers connect and care. As such, a story doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘correct’, nor do protagonists need to do ‘good’ things for us to love reading about them.

Your story just needs to resonate with readers – and that begins with your characters being human, or at least operating in a way that your human readers will recognize. They might be six-tentacled aliens on a planet orbiting Betelgeuse, or anti-heroes like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho — but even the most inhuman or unlikeable characters can all astound us and move us, because we see some glimmer of our own humanity in each of them.

What’s key to your storytelling is, and always will be, emotional connection.

Where To Start

It makes narrative and dramatic sense to create fully rounded human characters who will face story challenges, who will make active choices, and who will reflect and change as readers spend time with them.

Ponder this as you start planning.

If you’re wondering where to start with characters, make a list of questions for them to build a personality profile.

Ideas might be:

  • Where was your character’s childhood spent?
  • What was your character’s favourite place as a child? Where did they feel most joy?
  • What made your character feel safe?
  • What subjects did your character love at school?
  • What books did they love to read? What were their hobbies?
  • What was their worst accident as a child? What lesson did they take from it?
  • What would their Myers-Briggs personality be?
  • What’s their reason to live, their all-encompassing drive?

Let some of these ideas get you started.

Just be sure you’ll know their innermost depths, the life-wish that drives them, too – since these will propel your plot, too.

Enjoy your character-building and happy writing!