Disclaimer (once again): I’m not a professional at this. So feel free to ignore my advice.
I saved this part for last because I feel like it’s the most important. As a reader, I can suffer through a story even if the writing is bad technically-speaking or if the plotline is contrived if I like or connect to the main character. But if the character sucks, I can’t stand the story.
I talked about clichés a little in the last part, but I’m going to go into a bit more detail in this post. There’s a term amongst the online writing community—particularly amongst fandoms and fanfiction readers/writers—called “Mary-Sue”. A Mary-Sue (or Gary Stu, if your character is a guy) is defined by Wikipedia as an “idealized character, often but not necessarily an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment”. To my understanding, a Mary Sue is a character who is bland, over-the-top cliché, has no personality, can do everything without help (even if it’s literally physically impossible) and/or often mirrors the author in some way. A more detailed list of what a Mary Sue character is can be found here. One example of a Mary Sue in popular literature is Bella Swan of the Twilight saga—she thinks of herself as “plain” yet her milkshake brings all the boys to her yard, and has no real personality. Don’t do this. Please. I’m begging you.
Work on your characters until you know them like you know yourself. Write out ‘interviews’ with them. Ask them questions. Research their hobbies. Give them a beginning, a past, even a future if you want to. Break apart character tropes and destroy gender roles. Give them flaws. Write a character with unclear morals or allegiances to everyone but the ones they care about the most. Give them a backbone to support themselves with. Make them tap their hands or jiggle their knee too much. Make them always pick up pennies off the sidewalk. Make them take crap from nobody but themselves.
Ask yourself these questions: what are their morals? What motivates them? What would they change about themselves if they could? What do they regret? What are they scared of? What are their hobbies? What are their secret desires? How do they act when they’re alone?
And don’t just answer the questions. Think about why. Why are they scared? Why do they think about themselves this way? Was it because of their parents and how they raised them? Remember that a person’s self-image changes as they grow up. Look back on your own childhood—I’m sure that you can find something that happened that changed how you view yourself or the world. In my story, FAIRY TALES, my main character’s parents died when she was 13, forcing her to move in with her grandmother in a different city mid-school year. This changed her completely. Personality comes from personal experiences, and it’s not static—it changes as we grow and experience new things. Your character should change throughout your story, and it’s because of what they experience.
Some helpful links:
- This table of traits of human consciousness, with opposing positive and negative traits.
- This detailed guide on character motivators.
- This index of character flaws from tvtropes.com, complete with handy examples.
- This super-massive list of vices.
- This list of a 1000 (a 1000!) character flaws and strengths.
- This list of a 100 character quirks.
- This post on character morality alignment. I found this link super helpful for creating my own characters.
- This masterpost on writing the strengths and weaknesses of student characters.
- This post on how to develop character through memories.
- This masterpost on how to write specific characters, like a sociopath, a stoner, etc.
- This post on how to write badass female characters. I also found this very helpful in planning a character.
- This post on creating vivid characters.
- This other post on creating vivid characters
- This post on traits that contribute to good (oxymoron not intended) villains.
- These exercises for creating villains.
- This post on tips for creating believable antagonists
And now that you’ve got a character pretty clear in mind, here are some more helpful links:
- This list of common and terrible character descriptors and how to fix them.
- This post on how to reveal character.
- This masterpost of character sheets and profiles.
- These questionnaires for writing character profiles.
- This other character questionnaire.
- This other other character questionnaire.
- This list of 30 questions to ask your main character, put together by literary agent Carly Watters.
- This character skills generator.
- This character interests generator.
- This masterlist of tests for character building.
- The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test
- The Mary Sue Race Test (only applicable for sci-fi and magical realism)
- The Fantasy Cliché Meter: The Bad Guys
If you found this or any of the other parts helpful, please feel free to share them with the links below. I wish you all the best in your writing. 🙂