So You Think You Can Write-Part 3: Creating Characters, Beyond the Cliche

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To paraphrase my favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice, I am a studier of character. Whenever I watch a movie or a TV show or read a book, I want to invest in the people more than whatever happens to them. What do they do? What are they thinking? What kind of people are they?

Even the most basic of plots can be compelling enough if the characters are written well. One example of this is The Guardians of the Galaxy (both Vol. 1 and 2). The plots of both movies are simple, but the characters are what make the movies interesting and compelling. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1 sets up what kind of people the characters are (and yes, I include the talking racoon and the giant tree as “people”). Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 introduces more personal stakes and shows the group coming together as a family unit. The action, music, and humor all contribute to the movie, but what people end up remembering (aside from the catchy songs) are the things that Peter, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot all experience.

When you’re creating a story, you want to create characters that aren’t stereotypes or cliches. If you’re writing young adult and know about the basic Breakfast Club archetypes, figure out a way to develop beyond the typical athlete, brainiac, princess, basketcase, and criminal. Power Rangers (2017) did this by giving each of the characters a personal stake in the story and characterization that goes beyond their high school label.

Jason starts out as the typical jock, star of the football team. However, he is tasked with the responsibility of being the leader and making sure everyone gets along. Billy is the brainiac, but he’s also on the autism spectrum and is grieving over his deceased father. Through befriending the rangers, Billy learns how to be more social without having to change who he is in essentials and he sees the rangers as his family. Zack seems like the cool high school delinquent, who always cuts class and hangs around the mines and train cars. In reality, he has the responsibility of taking care of his sick mother and fears losing her. Kimberley is the spirited ex-cheerleader, but her past as a mean girl causes her to wonder if she’s worthy of being a ranger. Trini starts out as being a “new kid on the block,” wanting to socialize, but never fitting in. She later reveals that she struggles with stuff relating to her identity. The way that she sees herself conflicts with what her parents want her to be.

All of these characterizations seem simple enough, but anything that goes beyond the norm makes for great writing. If you have a young woman who acts cold and distant, figure out why she’s so standoffish beyond a tragic backstory. Wonder Woman is a great example of female characterization. She has some tragedy in her backstory, but it does not define her as a person. Your young woman might have issues with her parents, like most other teenagers, but it can’t be her only defining trait.

Creating a character is basically like going on an archaeological dig: you start out with the bare bones (personality, physical appearances, likes, dislikes, etc) and have to dig deep to figure out what kind of person your character is. That means figuring out their backstory and what they want out of life at the time that your story starts.

It’s important to create a cast of diverse characters, and I don’t just mean making sure that you have characters of different ethnicity. Each character should have a distinct and unique personality. Even when you use the Myers-Briggs or the Four Temperaments, there are still ways to make two people with the same personality type and temperament unique.

I challenge you to create at least five characters that you think feel unique to you. Who knows, what you create might end up creating the players to a wonderful story.

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