What makes a character cliché? A character that readers don’t relate to, usually because they don’t feel real. This is can be a struggle for all writers, including yours truly. Here are some things that I’m trying to implement in my writing, so my characters actually have life to them. See if this line of thought can help give life to your characters.
Stop the Zero to Hero Protagonist
When I say “zero to hero,” I’m talking about the main character that starts off at a low level—usually weak, unsure of herself, and all around a regular Joe. Have you met characters like that? Have you written characters like that? In my younger drafts, I wanted to take an average character and show how her choices made her more dynamic and charismatic. I saw it as a refiner’s fire to show what kind of diamond my character would eventually become.
Diamonds don’t start off as rocks. They start off as rough diamonds—they just need to be cut, modified, and shaped. They become more valuable with every facet.
To me, that means that a character from the beginning has to have some kind of worth, interesting factor, or a cause that readers are willing to root for. Don’t we all? So should your character. So should mine.
Who Are Your Characters, Really?
To better illustrate my point, Ilsi, my protagonist for Destiny Seeker used to be a real dud. She couldn’t talk to her best guy friend to save her life, she was antisocial, she blamed herself for everything, looked awkward, and pretty much sounded like the worst excuse of a main character. In actuality, she magnetized all of my worst traits as a teenager.
I didn’t want my readers to feel sorry for Ilsi—I wanted them to understand her, want to be her, or want to be friends with her. So I took a second look at her character. She knows some stuff, she questions things, she has a sense of humor, and yes, she can actually run.
I want to tell you that having a humble character doesn’t mean that they should be weak. It would be just as cheesy if the main character was wonderful, perfect, well-liked, and countered every challenge with grace. We know that people just aren’t like that.
But let’s not over-correct. Don’t make your characters shadow the worst things about you or anyone. Just like you, your family, your best friends, and your sworn enemy, your characters should have both strengths and weaknesses that are realistic and useful to the story.
Let Them Like Themselves
I bring this up because of a quiz I took the other day. It was actually something from a more reputable source than Buzzfeed, oddly enough—the test was to show how narcissistic you are. I was definitely curious, and I scored a 12, which is a good average number. I got to looking at the questions, and didn’t agree with some of the wording (an annoying editor’s trait, I know.)
But it ultimately got me thinking about one thing about society: just because you like yourself, think you have what it takes to be successful, or value your abilities, it doesn’t make you vain or narcissistic.
You can love your body, enjoy your talents, and be a leader and still appreciate others and what they can do.
For example, Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory is always right—and he knows it—and yet he’s hilarious and viewers are drawn to his cleverness. Catwoman knows she’s a catch and momentarily distracts her antagonists before using her heel to rearrange their faces. You can make confidence work without making the character sound like the cliché cheerleader bully.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your main character has to start at zero. Give them a chance to rise and be worth the reader’s time.
With any character development change, it can equate to hours of revision. Boy, I hear you. Keep your eyes out for the next post on how you can manage to put a finger on your character—or basically workshop tactics that you’ll actually do, rather than put off for later.
What struggles have you faced with your main character in particular?