Writing compelling characters is not easy. Being good at it demands a deep understanding of people. One develops that through a mixture of interest, observational skill, and puzzle-solving, all of which take time to learn. It’s particularly unlikely that one will develop such understanding from a book.
I can’t give you a formula for making interesting characters. Even it it were possible, it would be a subject too complex for a blog post. Instead, the following is a few tips about avoiding the clichéd kind of characters.
We have become accustomed to visual shorthand, and video ads reveal this explicitly. I’m going to use the example of ads for mountain bikes, which are common on YouTube in cycling-related content.
The ads sell the product by promoting coolness. (Car ads do too, but we almost never see the drivers.) The message is: See this attractive individual? You can be like that, you just need one of these.
Here’s where the clichés start. We can visually show coolness in only a few ways. Bike-ad directors do it using beards and tattoos. The audience is trained to recognise cool individuals because they invariably have these features. I’ve been watching this for a while, and I challenge anyone to find an ad for off-road bikes that does not feature beards and tattoos. It seems that in popular consciousness, these alone make someone cool.
Maybe visual clichés work for video ads, but they don’t for fiction. Writers can’t stick superficial badges of clichéd characterisation on to pabulum characters and expect that to create depth. It’s hollow, fake, and unsatisfying. Yet actually a lot of writers (especially TV writers) try exactly this. They attempt characterisation using the very same overused tools that video ad producers use.
I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to illustrate this practice using the recent series Star Trek Picard. I have been a passionate Star Trek fan since the early 1970s. In my opinion, the less said about this abominable new incarnation, the better; it’s not Star Trek and it’s definitely not Picard. (I won’t be watching any more of it.) Anyway, at least this garbage contains plenty of good material for teachers and students of writing. Here I am focusing on characterisation, or rather the complete lack of it.
One of Picard’s new associates is an ex-Starfleet officer, now improbably turned buccaneer. He had so little effect on me that even after 10 episodes in 2020, I did not remember his name, and had to look it up. It is apparently Christobal Rios. I had no idea, and that’s the point.
Rios is as interesting as a wax candle. He seems to have beamed-in from a mountain-bike ad. Picard sees something virtuous in him, although we never find out what. At least we know Rios is cool because he’s got the beard and tattoos. Even better, they’ve given him a cigar as well. Who smokes at the turn of the 24th century, let alone inside a spacecraft? This is so absurd that it highlights this trick for what it is, a cheap visual cliché instead of characterisation. We’re supposed to accept Rios as intriguing because he has the right look. He certainly has nothing else.
And what have they done to Seven of Nine (aka Annika Hansen)? I’m going to skip all the back story, but suffice to say Seven was, when we last saw her in 2001, an extremely interesting character. She was complex and deep, and this she earned (as always) through a lot of genuine conflict and hardship in her life. She made choices and paid the price. Nineteen year later, all that depth has gone, although she may have turned lesbian.
Not only is this inconsistent with what we previously saw of the character, it’s another cliché. I don’t care about anyone’s sexuality: people are what they are and it doesn’t matter. Whatever someone’s sexuality is, this of itself is not enough to make them interesting. Yet weak writers draw upon this from their toolbox of coolness clichés. They arbitrarily make someone homosexual who was not before, and/or gratuitously add a gay character, as if this is somehow interesting or edgy. It’s not. It’s cheap, amateurish and lazy.
Developing writers: go deeper. Phoney Mister Potato-Head features – not only beards and tattoos, also smoking, alternative sexuality, and non-white ethnicity – do not of themselves constitute characterisation. They detract from characterisation. Watch out for these and for any other cheap tricks. Using them shows that a writer is satisfied with superficiality and hasn’t done the work.