How often are you bored by characters in films that look beautiful and can do no wrong? Everyone loves them, they have deep pockets, endless love and breeze around with an impeccable sense of humour. It makes them unrelatable and, quite often, impossible to root for.
It’s not easy to let our characters breathe, to give our protagonists imperfections and our villains an unexpected softness. But imperfection is human and central to writing a believable character. Not only does that add realism to a piece of fiction, or a TV show, or a play, it also adds the things that make us fall in love with a character. Whatever genre you write, however much you build a world or a race, your characters must be credible.
If you find that something seems flat about your heroine or your antagonist is coming off cartoony (when you’re not trying to write them that way), look at just how perfect you have made them. Somehow perfection, unless exquisitely written, makes a character one-dimensional. As much as a reader loves to feel that they can predict the next scene, a faultlessness in personality won’t surprise them or keep them hooked. They’ll expect the hero to do the right thing, or that the boy will indeed love the girl unconditionally, or that the bad guy is not going to second-guess himself.
To add a flawed nuance to our characters can be tricky, especially if you recognised yourself or someone you love as you built them. Don’t fall into the trap of making them faultless. I guarantee their real magnificence will come when they are impatient or stroppy, judgemental or vindictive but most certainly not when they are only, to their core, one of these things. Tone them and tune them finely, into the character that belongs in your story. When a character has layers you have more to write and the story will progress with depth and intrigue.
Personalities are built of more than the positive. Beauty is subjective. Making a character naïve, gifting them a temper or an unpredictability won’t stop them from being beautiful so don’t fall into the trap of wanting everyone to love them. Trust that most of your audience will love them regardless. And remember that readers bring their own flaws and prejudice and joy when they read, and it would be a bore if they all had the same favourite character.
Want to give your characters a refresh? Here are 3 exercises to help you reimagine them.
1. Pick a character from your work in progress. Do they have a best friend/partner in crime? Choose an event from your story and have them row about it. Why are they annoyed with one another? How would they blame the other? Write the dialogue between them but ensure they each have a unique reaction. Read it back. What has the argument taught you about the characters? How could you bring that trait into your work
2. Pick a character from your story and a film that you know well. Rewrite a pivotal scene from the film to include your main character making a terrible mistake which affects the story. What kind of mistake do your writer instincts have them make? What personality trait could that become in your work in progress?
3. When was the last time someone really irritated you? What did they do or say that made your blood boil? Choose three scenes from your work in progress (or a recent read if you are still in the planning stages). Using different combinations of characters, what and how would one infuriate the other? Remember that flaws aren’t always obvious – someone being too nice or trying to be helpful can also have a negative effect.