Are you writing breathing, nuanced characters? Or are your characters so flat and vacant that they can be knocked over like a piece of cardboard?
Do you find yourself writing stereotypical characters that you’ve already seen before? Or do you simply have a nagging suspicion that your characters are, in some way, unoriginal?
Welcome. You’re safe here and among friends.
As writers, we’ve all written to stereotype.
When you first start storytelling, it’s almost impossible to avoid familiar patterns with your characterization. This is how we learn to write. Those good ‘ole, simple and flat characters help us learn to write compelling plots. But, as you mature in your writing and wish to give your reader a specific, sophisticated experience, you’ll find that those old cliched characters simply won’t do.
If you’re ready to elevate your writing and create stories with fresh, new characters, keep on reading. Below, we’ll discuss how to create whole characters that your readers can identify and empathize with.
What’s the Harm of Creating an Unoriginal Character?
Are you more focused on plot than characterization? If so, you may not think it’s a big deal to create in-depth characters with lengthy back stories and internal motivations. However, strong characterization is one of the most important elements of storytelling.
Cliched, unoriginal characters hurt your ability to tell an engaging story.
Characters are storytelling devices that help the reader experience and process the story. If your character is one-note, your story will likewise fall flat. It won’t be as rich and nuanced as it could have been because your stereotypical characters aren’t able to carry the weight. Stereotypical characters have limits and they can’t be pushed beyond those limits. They’re the literary equivalent of animatronic characters at Chuck E. Cheese— They move in unnatural but set patterns.
They are not complex or relatable. Their only job is to push the story forward and they do so in a halting and cringe-worthy manner.
When you write using stock characters, you limit your writing ability. You also deprive the reader of being able to experience your world fully. Flat characters will never be able to perceive your world as intensely as you’d like.
If you want to tell the best story possible, you can only do so with characters who are fully alive and made for the world that you’ve created— Not characters who are borrowed from a world that someone else created a long time ago.
We’ve talked a lot about the virtues of character over plot and vice versa. Check out these posts to learn more:
Don’t Confuse Archetypes and Stereotypes
While we often use archetypes and stereotypes interchangeably, the two are not the same.
An archetype is a character prototype (i.e. a template). Examples of archetypes include the sidekick, the unwilling hero, and the villain.
A stereotype is an oversimplified and overused character that plays into cultural preconceptions.
Depending on your genre, you can and should use archetypes in your story. Your readers may expect certain types of characters to pop up in your story. However, stereotypes are never welcomed because they only represent immature or lazy writing. Archetypes can be built upon. Stereotypes are always generic.
Common Stereotypical Characters
Let’s take a look at some of the most common stereotypes in literature:
- Absent-minded professor – A genius who trips and can’t get out of his own way
- Angry black woman – A sassy, emasculating, and overly opinionated black woman
- Bad boy – A macho guy who lives on the opposite side of the law, often a brooding rebel with or without a cause
- Damsel in distress – A young woman who needs to be helped or rescued
- Every man/ Girl next door – A person who’s average in every way, is hopelessly nice, and unoffensive
- Femme fatale – A physically desirable but deadly woman
- Hooker with a heart of gold – A prostitute with an ironically high level of morality
- Plain Jane/ Swan – An average looker who magically transforms into a beauty, generally by removing eyeglasses or sprucing up her wardrobe
- Strong female character – Yup, even this has become a cliche. This one is characterized as a hater of all things feminine, tough, and devoid of any personality other than vague anger
To learn how to write a strong female protagonist the right way, check out this post: Your Guide to Writing Women.
This is a small list of cliched characters that we come across in storytelling. The above characters are limited in their ability to convey a story. It’s okay if your characters resemble some of these traits, but they should be bigger than these traits, too.
6 Ways to Avoid Character Cliches in Your Writing
Here’s how to avoid character cliches in your storytelling:
1. Focus on Your Character’s Origin Story
This tip is important for both protagonists and antagonists. Why is your character the way he or she is? What caused them to develop a particular trait? How does this trait continue to serve them through their life?
Don’t be afraid to interview your characters. Yes, you’ll feel silly initially but the process can provide you with a ton of insight into who you’re writing.
2. Go In Depth With Character Description
While I caution against cluttering your book with an in-depth physical character description, it is useful for you, as the writer, to “see” who you’re writing. You should know what your character looks and sounds like, even if it’s only for the purpose of writing a more faithful narrative.
You should be able to see your character as an actual three-dimensional person who moves through space. Know the way they sit in a chair— Are they hunched over? Do they usually sit on the edge? Do they tuck their feet underneath them when they sit?
I thoroughly believe that the only reason for writing a stereotypical character is that you don’t know enough about them. The more you sit in your character’s presence, ask questions, and observe, the less likely you are to create a character that’s flat and generic.
3. Give Your Characters a Range of Emotions
You should know the emotional range of your principal characters.
Range means that you shouldn’t just stop at anger.
Anger is perhaps the easiest emotion for any of us to access, and it’s very easy to write. It doesn’t take much skill to write an angry character. Want to show that your character is angry about something? Have them furrow their brows and throw their phone across the room. Done.
What about happy? Aside from a smile, how does your character display happiness? What about sadness? What about fear?
From the way they wrinkle their face to the way that they breathe, you should see your characters in vivid detail.
Also, consider which emotion your character is most comfortable with and why. This can inform your writing choices because humans are often stuck in one emotion or another. We’re rarely indifferent. If you know your character’s default emotion, you can write a fleshed out character who responds in a more realistic way.
4. Give Your Character a Sense of Motivation
What motivates your character to act? What is their internal and external motivation in every scene? They’re not just “crazy.” Come on, you’re a better writer than that. What is in their back story that causes them to take every action?
5. Give Your Character Fears and Flaws
What is your character afraid of? What don’t they show? What’s left unsaid in each scene? You should know even if it’s never fully revealed to the reader.
6. Give Your Character Strengths
What makes the character strong? What does your character readily show? What does your character— not just you— like about himself or herself?
Before you go, check out these related posts:
- 5 Writing Cliches to Avoid
- 6 Types of Heroes You Need in Your Story
- 5 Important Characters to Have in Every Story