How do you build characters that are human, avoiding caricature or stereotype?
Writers put themselves at risk if they’re drawing from cliché, i.e. an idea of how certain people should act or be. (Say a geek with glasses, because it shows they’re clever, for instance.)
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”.
Female writers, too, unwittingly do something similar when creating male characters if they render them romantic caricatures rather than real people.
How can you avoid these things, writing 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.