People are complicated. People are always deeper than we know and have hidden fears and hopes. Sometimes people reflect the way they dress and look, and sometimes they have conflicting personalities. There are so many types of people in the world with different cultures and challenges. And yet, there are still character tropes and cliches in writings.
I have a few different thoughts on this subject. People are attracted to similar things. People like to read books in which they identify with a character. We gather in groups of similar interests and change attitudes and clothes to fit in. Whatever is considered normal is always the goal.
Familiar is comforting. But it is also considered boring to read about if we use the same characters. There becomes less surprise and interest. The characters read as flat and unrealistic. And that isn’t what we want when reading books. Is it?
This is almost hypocritical. People want familiar and to make connections. And yet we celebrate when something new is introduced to us. So what kind of character is ideal? And honestly, I don’t think there is an ideal character type for a story. Popular books are as different as the people in the world. So I say, don’t worry if it is cliché or not. Clichés and stereotypes get started for a reason. As long as you create complicated people that make sense in the storyline, your readers will connect with them on some level.
While I don’t think it is wrong to have cliché characters in your story, I do think it is wrong to add in simple ones. That is laziness and no one will enjoy reading about them. Even your side characters should read as if they were deep. Nothing should be included in your story for only one purpose.
Characters should not be in a scene simply because you need filler for the tavern scene. They are there because they are trying to forget about the loss of their wife, or perhaps this patron is looking to steal purses from drunks. The reason can even be a simple one like a farmer is eating dinner here because he is terrible at cooking for himself. And why does it matter that they have reason to be there if you don’t talk about it? Well, you will talk about it to an extent. When your main character walks into this tavern they will hear the drunks first who are trying to drown their sorrows. They will smell the well-cooked food and want some of their own. But they may or may not notice the shifty eyes staring at their waist looking for an opportunity.
These may be simple reasons, but they are better than having your character walk into a tavern filled with people who are there for no reason. They are scenery at that point and won’t affect your character. But that isn’t realistic. Even if you only say one thing about the patrons of the tavern, knowing that they are there and that they have their own purposes makes them real. Give them motivations and desires of their own and your readers will find more motivation to read the book.
There are a myriad of problems that come up in your daily life. Heroes do not only fight the dragon. They have to figure out how to put on their complicated set of armor by themselves. They have to travel long distances on foot in rain and mud with little resources. They may struggle with their conscience because they did not help that child who fell down outside their house and cried. They may dream about their future self as a merchant but have no idea on how to get there.
Including these small problems are extremely relatable and much more realistic than horses that never have to stop and eat. The world is not perfect and people are not perfect. Include difficulties, big and small, and make your characters fail at some of them. Give them faults and handicaps that they must deal with. Give them fears and embarrassing desires. Make them prideful or greedy. Then find the balance between the good and the bad. Give them character quirks and they will be true heroes to your readers.
Everyone thinks they are the hero in their own story. No one thinks they are the sidekick. Even those who seek to be apprentices or lackeys see themselves as something grand to be admired who will accomplish something one day. But every story is different too. Everyone has a different history with both good and bad that changes who they are. No single moment defines their entire being. Each moment and a person’s reaction to that encounter will change a small thing about them.
For writing, this means you have to include a variety of personality traits. Don’t focus on just one or two. Understand that your characters are deeper than even you know and let them surprise you from time to time. Your characters should also change throughout the story in either small ways or with drastic adventures. They don’t even necessarily have to be good changes. People will sometimes get worse and hit rock bottom before they start striving to be better. Of course, there should probably be some good change in their story unless they are the villain. Most people don’t want to read depressing books without overcoming that. A lot of people read to find hope in one way or another.
Writing a character who has different personality traits than your own can be difficult. It can be even harder to figure out how to write a first-person story from a character of the opposite sex than your own. People watching, talking to friends and family, staying observant in public outings, and researching helps with this.
You may have to be careful here that people don’t think you are stalking them. If your subjects start to look at you or question your actions, honestly tell them what you are doing. They may act differently at that point when they know they are being observed, but most people won’t stop you. And it is better to lose some sincere actions than have the cops called on you. People are flattered and love to talk about themselves to an extent. Be that listener that everyone comes to and you will learn more than you wanted to for your books.
If you are still having trouble starting a character, begin with the cliches. Create a man that over-focuses on his actions, letting all other thoughts slide. Write about a woman that tries to micromanage everything. Explore the world through a child’s eyes who only think about themself while trying to understand everything. People aren’t just those things, but cliches exist for a reason. While people are more different than they think, people are also more similar than they expect. You can start with the cliches and then build more personalities off of them. There should always be more to a person.
The Total Sum
I rambled a bit, but there is a lot to say about people. In short, your characters should be similar to real people. Real people are complicated with many different backgrounds, settings, and characteristics. People change throughout their lives bit by bit. Familiar is comforting and new is exciting. Try to write your characters as having both. Don’t worry too much about being cliché. Clichés exist for a reason and are good starting points. But always expand your characters and let them change throughout the story in both good and bad ways. Study people in real life if you need help writing out your characters. And characters should not simply be background. You should always have at least two reasons for that character to be there. Stories should have some level of hope in them, even horror books with bad endings.
If you can manage to pack all of this into your characters, your readers will find something to connect to and will love them.
Other posts on writing characters:
Photo by Jan Kolar / VUI Designer