So last week, it got real. I talked about Ilsi and my quest to making her a real person. I feel there’s no point in talking all day about what makes a cliché character without talking about what we can do about it.
To be honest, people will always make money off cliché characters. It’s not fair, but at the end of the day, there are authors and script writers that laugh their way to the bank—because there is still somehow a market for predictable characters.
However, if you admire characters from books and movies that have depth and feel like real people, you might want the same for your own characters. I’m speaking for myself here. If you want to get to know your character more and bring out the best in them, then let’s try these ideas together.
1. Take Quizzes on Their Behalf
We’re all a little curious to know what kind of person we are or how others perceive us. Think of all the quizzes and tests that are out there to learn your own love language, work ethic, even down to your personal level of narcissism. If you’re curious to know what your character’s answers would be, take the quizzes as if you were them. You might learn a lot about your characters—what they would and wouldn’t do.
You might get some ideas of scenarios to use in your story to bring out certain traits that you have discovered or are especially important to the plot. For something more complex than a Buzzfeed quiz, try the Jung Typology test. Just FYI, it’s free and you don’t have to download anything.
2. Give Your Readers a Good First Impression
Imagine if your main character was your significant other and it was time for him or her to meet the parents. How would you introduce them to dear old Mom and Dad? Would you start off telling them that they’re impatient, rude, hungry to kill, or weak? Hopefully you would be honest, but start with the good stuff. They’ll get to know the character inside and out, but you can do your main character a favor and put them in a realistic, but redeeming light.
How would that look? If you’re writing fiction, you’re probably going to introduce your readers to your character as they are performing some kind of action. Think of it like this: if someone were to see you in your room or in public, what would you be doing? Reading a book, working out, cramming for finals, shopping, or playing sports? In a sense, let your readers eavesdrop on your main character in a revealing way that says something about your main character and how they like to spend their time.
A recent example would be meeting Rita Vritraski for the first time in the movie, Edge of Tomorrow. Before we meet her, we see her face on a bus with a heavy sword/knife weapon hefted over her shoulder. She looks pretty badass. When we actually meet her in person, she’s alone on a large training floor in a plank position, holding up her entire body weight with just her fists. Before she even says anything, we know some things: she’s a fighter. She has complete control over her body and she prefers to keep it that way. She doesn’t mix well with the others. She’s passionate about winning the mysterious war that Cage got himself into. That’s some quality eavesdropping.
3. Find Out What your Character Wants
For each character, you can start somewhere by finishing the following sentence: [Insert name] is a [blank] who wants [blank].
So for my character, it would look something like this: Ilsi is an Ice Chanter who wants to save her people from isolation.
This simple exercise can potentially help you get somewhere. Because ultimately, a story is driven by the main character’s desire, and the story is based on the choices that the character makes to get that ultimate desire.
I get this idea from one of the greatest books I’ve read about writing, called Story by Robert McKee. If you want to get way deep into the craft of telling a solid story, get your hands on this book. McKee says that readers can really get to know your characters by the choices they have to make. He says
TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.
What are they willing to sacrifice to get what they want? How far are they willing to go to get what they want? This can help frame your story as you give your character some options and your readers follow eagerly to see what your characters will do.
Find ways to keep track of different things you learn about your character. Some writers get really into it and write essays and character backgrounds about people they’ve only met in their heads. When you learn something about your character as you write, have some separate document—electronic or print—to house all of your ideas. I edit my manuscript through Microsoft Word and I keep a Word document of these notes, or I make comments in Track Changes where I want to insert some of my ideas at some point.
If you learn anything from this post, it should be this: this is your story, your characters. They deserve to look, sound, and feel the way you want them to. As much as we aim to please the readers, your work should be something you love first. I honestly feel that when we write the characters we want and ignore the readers for a little bit, that’s when the characters will come out of our brains and on onto paper.