The hardest challenge in creating characters is avoiding clichés, stereotypes and identical narrators. This is for two (very much entwined) reasons.
Firstly, every character we’ve ever read or created is in our heads. This is the case whether the character resonated with you or not. Whether you remember them. Whether they influenced you as a person, a reader, or a writer. They are all still there, consciously or unconsciously fighting for space in your work. Remember Edward Cullen? Christian Grey? Yes, even those arseholes are in there somewhere, whether you want them to be or not. This isn’t a bad thing. We need precedent to fire our own imagination. But, it does mean that when we create characters we have an uncanny feeling that we’ve met them before. The words they say, the way they react to danger, their likes and dislikes – they can feel distinctly borrowed.
Secondly, this is also the case for our readers. Think about when you’re reading for your own enjoyment.
Take this paragraph for example:
Alex sighed and said, “I need your help.”
Lou groaned. Alex always needed help. Lou unfolded a piece of paper and wrote “£4000”.
“Is this enough?” Lou asked, holding up the piece of paper for Alex to read.
“I bloody well hope so,” Alex replied, skimming a well-worn boot against the top of the nearest puddle. Lou could feel Alex’s discomfort. Money was a tense subject. Lou almost felt empathy in that moment, but dismissed it and said:
“Good. Don’t come back for more.”
Written by T. C. Emerys
Whether you intended to or not, you probably imagined Lou and Alex in your mind, whether that be their genders, which weren’t mentioned in the text, or the way they looked, the way their voices sounded, or their posture. Your reader is unconsciously and automatically creating your characters for you with even a few details.
This is why fans are often upset when they see who has been cast to play their favourite character in a film – even though the actor (or their costume/make-up etc.) may resemble the physical description in the text, they will feel different to the image each reader had in their heads.
So – how do we create unique characters given these challenges? How can we offer readers characters that don’t rely on shortcuts to meaning?
We of course want our readers to fill in the gaps between what we show and what we imply. Writing should ‘show’ how a character behaves given different situations and interactions, rather than tell the reader what to think about them.
To my mind, this starts with how we approach our own characters in planning. It’s certainly true that our characters need multiple layers so that our readers can delve through them and find something more meaningful in their experiences, but I think our focus is wrong.
If we want our readers to shed thoughts of heroines and heroes they have read before, we need to start with a common misconception – that characters should be “likeable”. That we should root for them because they are just so nice and brave that we can’t help but will them onwards.
In my opinion, this is a recipe for two-dimensionality.
So often we focus on what our characters do well, but that’s not true to life. Real people are flawed, often noticeably so. Our arrogance, stubbornness, inflexibility and selfishness may be unpalatable in real life, but for characters this is pure fuel. Every moment that a character is judgmental or petty is a spark for a storyline.
Let’s look at the character I created above – Alex.
Alex is vulnerable in this moment, but Lou’s frustration at being asked for help again drives a feeling of contempt. These are flaws in both of them. Alex lacks self-sufficiency (for a reason not divulged here) and Lou, whilst being generous, lacks empathy.
But if we flip the focus around here from Lou to Alex, we may see that Alex has a perfectly good reason to ask for money, and that Lou is being unfair.
The depth that can be explored in these two characters is from their weaknesses. If Lou was merely presented as generous, there would be no other angle to take here. Our reader would come away with a polarised view of right and wrong – Lou being in the right and Alex being in the wrong.
To apply this to your own characters, start with their bad points.
Make a list of their darkest faults. Even the sunniest, most altruistic character is allowed to have a horrible side.
When planning, write some short passages that you don’t intend to put into your final work. For example, what do they avoid doing? The dishes? Their taxes? Visiting their seriously ill mother?
Take that scenario and run with it for a while. See it from as many angles as you can. Work out what makes that characters flawed and how they can either overcome it or succumb to it in your story. Do they need someone else with a different set of flaws and strengths to bring it out in them?
If they have an “enemy” (or just someone who dislikes them – I am not a fan of the polarisation of “heroes” and “villains”), what opinions do they have of your character that are actually justified by their behaviour? You character can make mistakes – even purposeful ones. Maybe they knew they were hurting that other person. Or ruining their life. They can be conscious of that and still have other facets to their character.
In summary, embrace the “unlikeable” when you create your characters. There is so much more to be found when we start with our character’s worst points, not just in terms of their weaknesses, but also how they overcome them, use them and recognise them.
Your reader doesn’t have to want to befriend them for them to be relatable.