Are you a cliché? Just a caricature of exaggerated traits and quirks? Are you so un-unique that people can’t tell you apart from say a sofa or house plant. Probably not. You are a dynamic individual who shares many traits and motivations with other humans, but who presents those in such a way that I can easily distinguish you from me and you from others.
And yet…so many times writers write (I won’t say create) characters that are clichés. Classic moody guy. Smart perfect yet “quirky” girl. Unstoppable Spy. Hard nosed cop. Blah blah blah. And as you write these over done versions, your creative and intelligent mind screams – “Please stop! This is so painful! We don’t need another Nora Roberts, Jodi Picoult, or Lee Child character in the world. My god please don’t write a blond version of Bella.”
Once upon a time these cliché characters were based on a real person or a combination of real people. John Steinbeck is famous for taking the characteristics of the people he met and placing them in his stories. These characters feel real because they are based on real people. Over time however they just become copies of copies and become so predictable that you can’t really do anything different with them than the last author did. You are no longer creating, you are simply following a recipe.
Characters drive your story…or they should. If you don’t have characters that you love, that you can work with, that you can make real, that will sometime surprise you, then you will never, ever finish that book. Your brain won’t let you. It will grow bored and tired. Something about the story “just won’t work.”
Familiar yet unique. That is the key to book publishing success. The familiar is the setting, the monster, the scenario. The unique is your characters and what they do or don’t do. You should borrow your characters – but not from Tom Clancy or JK Rowling – borrow them from your real life. People you know. Personalities you can mix and match. Not exactly as they are, but a version of them that you can reliably know well enough to negotiate through 75 thousand words. You’re a writer after all – creative liberty is your specialty. Making a string of lies seem real is what you do. And the best lies are those mixed with a little bit of truth.
My first two novels and most of my short stories contain personalities from the people I have met throughout my life. I never sit down and say, “I want Dr. Thorn to be like Stephen King’s character X.” Instead I say, “Dr. Thorn would be sort of me, if me had never had children, had attended med school, and woke up to a zombie apocalypse.” The other characters are people like my children and their friends. One of the human bad guys in the novel was based on an attorney I once employed.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t use Archetypes. A great story follows to some degree or another the Hero’s Journey. The characters can and maybe should fit those Archetypes because they make the tale organized, with purpose and familiarity. That does not require however that the characters be cliché. The traits can be similar but the personalities must be unique. In many writing programs there is a name generator function.. I never use it. I also don’t create “character cards” that list favorite colors, birthdays, job resume and the like. You may like to and it may help you develop fuller characters. I think you can do that on your own. Better yet, I think your characters can tell you and the reader who they are through their actions, their thoughts and their speech.
Once you start writing your characters based on real personalities or a mix of real personalities, you start to have fun. You can imagine what they would do in a situation, you can make your characters talk, and laugh and cry and act. You have a baseline to work from but unlimited options to develop that character further. I think however, you need to be fair to the ones you don’t like. As a writer you need to see the world from the bigger picture. Few people are all bad or all good. That reality is important even when writing a character based on someone you loathe.
My point is that there are plenty of interesting and exciting people in the world. It’s far more fun to kill a version of my ex wife in a horror story, then create an entire character from scratch. More interesting and a lot less time consuming. You’re not a cliché so don’t write clichéd characters.
Which brings me to my next suggestion. Your characters have names so why do you treat your chapters like numbers?
Part 9: Name Thy Chapter