How to Write Unique, Non-Stereotypical Characters in Fiction
Why Description Isn't Terribly Important
I don't have any formal training as a writer, but I have written four books. One was self published, the other three were published my major publishing houses.
Many successful authors learn their craft as they go. What makes my situation a little different is that my son does have formal training, and as you can imagine, he gives me no mercy. I've learned a lot from his comments and from exercises he has given me. I've also learned a lot from experience. Like many I started out staring at a blank screen. I created characters that were all very similar, they all had me as a basis. Once I recognized that, I tried to develop a process of character creation. There are a lot of character 'sheet's on the web, lists of questions you should ask yourself about the character you're creating. I chose one and filled it in, decided on a height, weight, eye and hair color, all the superficial descriptive elements, and I found that none of them really mattered. Why? Two reasons.
- The information you put in a character sheet needs to be self consistent, only you can enforce that.
- Physical description of your characters is scene setting, it usually crops up when you first encounter the character. You need to know what your character looks like, and you need to make the description consistent, but you can't use description to keep your characters alive in the mind of the reader. It's important, but not that important.
What Brings Fictional Characters To Life?
Just as an actor can bring your character to life on screen, dialogue, your character's voice, can really bring a fictional creation to life on the printed page. Every character needs a voice, and that has at least two parts.
- What the character says.
- The way the character says it.
Ever got tired of 'he said, she said' conversations? It can be really difficult to find different ways of saying 'he said' but if your character's voice is really distinctive, you can simply ignore the labels altogether. You only need to say 'he said' when the reader needs to know which character was speaking. Make the voices very different, and the need for 'he said' melts away.
Different Ways to Say Yes.
As an exercise, let's imagine a scene where a question has been asked. The answer is 'yes' but we don't know who asked the question, who is answering, or what the question was.
'Oh yes! Yes, Rupert. Yes with all my heart!'
It's not hard to guess that Rupert has just proposed.
Here are some others that help to define the character who is speaking.
'Affirmative, Captain.' - I'm thinking Star Trek, but I'm probably showing my age. Short, sharp, to the point. Taciturn, probably in the military.
'Certainly Sir, right away.'
Polite, possibly servile. Could be a butler? English accent?
'Aye. Right then. Al put m'sel past. Dinna fass yersel'
Broad regional Scottish accent. Not ideal for a main character, but dialect, especially if your readers will understand it, is a great way to give a minor character personality.
'OK Then. See you at work tomorrow.'
Contemporary speech. A work colleague.
'Well of course, Mummy. Rupert and I will be there on time.'
I don't know about you, but the last one sounds very 'Downton Abbey' to me.
Your main characters should not be the same at the end of the story as they are at the beginning. Real people change with time. Fictional characters should do the same. Let the character's changing views be expressed in their dialogue, and remember it's not just what they say, it's the way that they say it. Let's go back to the earlier exercise. How would your character say 'yes'?
- 'Obviously'. Sounds arrogant.
- 'I'm not sure, probably' Sounds hesitant.
- 'Well, OK. If I must.' Sounds reluctant.
- 'I'm already on it.' Trying to sound efficient.
- 'I'd love to!' Enthusiastic - possibly gushing.
- 'Yeah. OK' Informal.
If your character starts the story timid, but ends the story as a hero, don't tell the reader, show them through the character's actions and dialogue.
How to Find the Right Voice
If your character is to be believable, their background must be consistent. Your character's voice is a product of their background and upbringing. Most of your readers won't sit down and take your character's background apart, this isn't a conscious process. Inconsistencies will simply make the character less real, and the result is simple. If the character doesn't seem real, the readers won't care what happens to him or her. For an author, that's a disaster.
So, if you work with a character sheet, by all means fill in the details, but take it very slowly and start with just one. For example, is your character good looking? Don't just fill in yes, or no. Think about it.
If your character is male - think of a good looking man you know. Does he know he is good looking? If so, he's probably self assured, possibly even to the point of arrogance. An arrogant, good looking man who thinks he is God's gift to women may well be a lot more believeable that one that has somehow ignored the way he looks and the effect it has on other people. If you need him to be a humble, sensitive type, you're going to have to come up with some really good reasons.
The same thing can be said for female characters. So often the central character in a romance is a stunningly beautiful woman, who, for some reason known only to the author, has never discovered that she can use her looks to manipulate the opposite sex. She's sheltered and shy as well as beautiful, and as a result, not quite believable.
When you decide on any characteristic of your character, think about how many others you can fill in just to be consistent,
If the parents are wealthy - your character is more likely to:
- Have been to a private school
- Attended college/university
- Have expensive taste.
If the character is the youngest of several children he or she is more likely to be
- A crowd pleaser/performer
- financially irresponsible
- funny and charming
- emotionally secure
If you character is the oldest child of a family he or she is more likely to
- be a natural leader
- seek approval
- be conscientious
- be aggressive
If your character is an only child, double the above - your character is also likely to relate well to people older than themselves.
Remember the reason you're doing this. It's not because you're looking for factual accuracy, it's because you want to create a character your readers will believe in and care about.
Should Your main Character be Likeable?
There is absolutely no need for your main character to be likeable. It's OK for your readers to hate your character, to dislike almost everything about them, but they have to care what happens to them, or they won't keep reading.
To use an old example, Scarlett O'Hara is a very strong character who leaps off the pages of Gone With the Wind. She is beautiful, spoiled and totally ruthless. You can't possibly like her. As the story progresses you see that she has courage, and at times you admire her, but like? No. Scarlett only becomes a sympathetic character on the last page, when she finally grows up, only to have the love of her life walk out with that oh so memorable line.
Where to Find Character Sheets and Names
All authors need to read, watch television and film. If you want to write young adult fiction, very popular these days, it's also useful to have some knowledge of video games and internet culture. You can learn a lot from other authors if you pay attention to how they do what they do, There are many types of fiction which have stereotypes. You can avoid these or embrace them in your fiction, but you should always try to be aware of them because they teach you a lot about your reader's expectations.
When you follow a stereotype it's rather like a form a shorthand. In a detective story, for example, everyone expects the crusty but benign boss, the Captain or Police lieutenant who shouts a lot but has a heart of gold. You can add this to your story to make your readers feel comfortable, they know what's going on, they don't need a lot of prompting, so you can spend more time creating an original main character, or you can lead your readers down the garden path. They expect your police captain will have a heart of gold, but what is he doesn't? What if he's covering up a secret from his past and was the villain all along? By using the stereotype and knowing what your readers expect, you can create a new twist on an old story form.
Naming Your Characters
It's important to choose a good name for a character. Certain names carry baggage, names go in and out of fashion, they remind readers of people they know.
In some genres, romance comes immediately to mind, it is normal for the female character to have a ridiculous name. Modern romantic heroines are never called Mary or Jane, just take a look at modern blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey. Anastasia is not a name we come across every day, and perhaps that's a good thing, allowing you to see that the heroine is someone truly different. But think about it, what would one character call another? I read a book recently where one of the main characters was called Cassiopeia, and no, it wasn't set in ancient Greece. It's a lovely name, but can you imagine all your other characters using it? No, they'd call her Cass or Cassie, or even Peya, and that would make her just a bit more believable.
Finding the right character name is something that takes time, and a name generator can be useful. Use it time and time again until you find a name which creates the right mental picture and is consistent with your character's back story, then try the name on other people and see what they think. As an example, Bob is a great name. It's short and and friendly, but not dynamic. Bob is a sidekick, but Robert, now he could be a hero. To get back to 'Gone With The Wind' author Margaret Mitchell originally called her heroine 'Pansy'. Would Pansy have made the same impact as Scarlett?
Another way to find names is to search the lists of popular baby names, not for this year, but for the year your character was born. If you're writing a historical novel you can easily find contemporary names by looking at royal family trees. For example - Tudor England - Catherine, Anne, Jane - the names of Henry VIII's six wives (there were three Catherines and two Annes) add Elizabeth and Mary (his daughters), plus Margaret (his sister) and you have a representative selection. If you give your characters popular modern names, like Jayden or Tyler, they need to be in a contemporary setting. Other names, Alexander for example, don't have the same associations and have been popular through the centuries.
This is the software package I use. It's reasonably priced, very robust and allows you to store research and notes along with the text. Get a Dropbox account and install scrivener there so you can work on your book where-ever you are And be sure it's backed up.
How to Use Character Sheets
Your character will be more believable if he or she has a consistent background, but you don't need a lot of detail for every character, so don't be afraid to use more than one character sheet. Many authors believe that they need to know the life story of every character, and if that works for you then fine. The problem for me is that if I know the story of the character I want to tell it, and that isn't always appropriate.
Detailed characters are good for a series of stories, don't feel you have to divulge their life history in book one. A good example of this is Detective Inspector Insch in Stuart McBride's stories about Scottish Police Detective Logan McRae. DI Insch appears complete with insatiable sweet tooth in the first book, Cold Granite, but takes more of a back seat later, coming back with a vengeance in book three, Flesh House where he gets a much more important role.
Visit web sites and copy character sheets to create your own. If you use a software package to build your book (I use Scrivener and recommend it) you can include the character sheets you build in the package and store all your information in one place. Scrivener also has a really useful name generator which gives you names of different nationalities as well as name meanings.
Asking Why? Your Characters Goals and Motivation
Why does your character do what he or she does in the story?
Motivation isn't just something actors worry about. Characters need goals. They need reasons to act the way they do. Without a reason, their actions aren't believable.
In Star Wars Annakin Skywalker turns from ambitious, arrogant youth to evil monster. His motivation is simple, he's trying to save the woman he loves and the child she is carrying. So far so good, he's believable, but ready to murder all the children studying in the Jedi temple? That's where the story lost me completely, I just didn't find it believable, and yes, it did spoil my enjoyment of the film.