A jester with a hammer, a sponge fry cook, a boy trying to catch ’em all. There are details about characters that transcend names and faces, certain things that just can’t help but stick out in your mind when you hear a name or a franchise.
Thinking about your favorite movie or TV show, what part really drew you to it? What makes you watch it over and over? Elements such as music, camera angles, casting choices, even catchy trailers are a good start to draw attention to a show. But what really keeps you coming back episode after episode?
Even musicals need more than a soundtrack to hold attention, and the captivating landscapes can only take you so far. People really remember stories for the plot and dialogue, or that twist at the end that gets you every time.
All in all, the real selling point of media is their characters. But what’s the difference between a lackluster impersonation and the iconic killer robot that pops into your head when you hear those words?
The simple answer is depth. That is, really spending time to develop more than just a name and goal for the main movers of your story. Be it a written story, a movie in production, or even just a tabletop game you’re playing with some friend; you don’t need a big budget to add memorable elements to any character you create. In fact, if you watch any TV at all, you’ve already got a pretty good head start.
So, if you feel like you’re struggling with giving your two-dimensional characters those three-dimensional elements, hold my hand; we’re going on this journey together.
This is my disclaimer: Follow your heart. Do what you think is right for the character. Because at the end of the day, what you create is yours and should ultimately make you happy. You shouldn’t be stressing over what you think people want to see. Don’t let it take the joy out of writing.
With that being said, we’re going to be breaking into character aspects that have become tropes and why they’re detrimental to viewership or storytelling.
If you’re familiar with writing and character building, you’ve probably heard the warning to stay away from making your character a Mary Sue. While some people may just be taking digs at character choices, some critics have real concerns about the effect on the story or lack thereof. But what does that really mean, and why are they really bad?
The basic definition of a Mary Sue is a character that has no weaknesses and no flaws. Despite the things that happen to them, they always remain perfect, unchanged, and in the right regardless of the circumstances. You may be thinking, but this is fiction writing and it does not have to mimic reality; and that’s one path to take. However, there are story elements that are reliant on character flaws, struggles, and just being flat-out wrong.
Every story relies on conflict—either internal personal struggles, external struggles against another person, or the eternal struggle against the environment. For someone to care what happens to your character, something has to go wrong, even if it is an insignificant inconvenience.
The difference is between being happy and being optimistic. One is an emotion, and one is a personality trait. If your character is happy regardless of circumstance, they’re bordering on psychopathy. Whereas if a character is optimistic no matter what, the audience wants to see just how far that optimism will go. Where will they draw the line, and what will ultimately break them?
There, I said it. If you want your character’s motivation to be his parent’s gruesome murder in that alley as a child that spurred him to take martial arts classes and become the greatest detective, go for it. Except maybe don’t do that one because I think it’s already taken.
Mundane character motivations are certainly a good route to go to avoid killing off relationships or taking things from your character for no reason. Certain deaths in the story can come off as unforgivable if they don’t teach a lesson or happen for a reason. Either there was no audience attachment to that aspect of your character, or it becomes obvious this person was never meant to contribute to the narrative beyond dying and furthering the story’s purpose.
Therefore, mundane can be the safer bet and more relatable to the audience. Larger-than-life characters humbled by their commitment to their job or family really resonate with people looking for parts of themselves or others in this fictional world.
Tragic backstories can get tragically overdone. The key to combating this is to weave elements of the backstory into the character’s personality. Many people believe “tragic upbringing + great responsibility = good protagonist.” However, history affects people in different ways, and few people drop exposé on complete strangers.
When you lose something, from friends and family to favorite toys, it’s a difficult process and not one that you’re likely going to talk about all the time. The real story is in this process and showing how the loss is affecting them. Are they healing, or does it just keep hurting them?
The loss of a partner tends to make people sabotage relationships, and the loss of a pet makes people a bit more protective of what they have or hesitant to replace something so close. If the only thing losing a parent does is make you talk about how you lost your parent, it can quickly become a tired gag instead of the motivation your character is using to tackle a problem or journey on a quest.
Building a strong backstory takes a bit more work and possibly a chart or two, but the reward will be worth it. Go through your character’s history and pick out key elements. Make sure you have more than one element too. This will help avoid that single dramatic moment of exposé.
You want to gently pepper in connections to the past. You can’t dump it all in one place. It makes the rest of the story bland and that single moment way too seasoned. Take those elements and turn them into flaws for your character or a hindrance to potentially overcome.
In the popular tabletop Dungeons and Dragons (DND), there is a popular character creation technique recommended when building characters. It’s known as the “Knife Theory,” and it involves a list of mysteries to solve, enemies made, family members to threaten, or personal obligations to potentially be used against your character at a later date.
With one person, the Dungeon Master, creating an interactive story tailored to this group of new and original characters, details like these help to raise the stakes for a character at any given point when the adventure starts to fall flat.
You could apply a similar technique to your writing. However, try not to give them too many knives—six or seven is a good average number—since it can make the story feel formulaic or just plain edgy. But if things get boring, feel free to throw a knife at someone. You don’t get to have too many professions that can give you that kind of advice.
On the other hand—for those of you who find yourself holding too many knives for your character and need to soften those edges—you can change those knives to quirks instead. Be it personality traits they can’t seem to shake, odd little habits, or catchphrases. Quirks don’t need to have any real basis or point of origin, as long as they are consistent.
This technique goes over especially well if you put your character in a position that really highlights the oddity of this quirk, at the same time portraying how they had never really assumed it was strange.
For instance, if your character has an inability to sit in a chair correctly, putting them in a big meeting with a roomful of stuffy corporate partners will really spotlight this once inconsequential trait. Show them really struggling to not disrupt the meeting but unable to focus. They could have someone correct their posture and spark up a conversation about it or have a room full of people turn to them with strange or even appalled looks.
People want to read interesting characters. They want to care. If you’ve taken the time to sit down at a tabletop or shove your book in someone’s hands, chances are they don’t want to say no to you. Making characters well-rounded, flawed, and unique is a surefire combination to have people not rolling their eyes at every plot convenience or line of dialogue.
Skillful writing and an interesting plot can only take you so far. If you’re going to put a captivating story together, the bulk of your weight is going to rest on the shoulders of your characters because they’re going to have to be the audience’s best friend or worst enemy throughout the journey.
Now, here’s a little something about all of those rules I’ve given you.
You get to break them.
As a writer, you get to become familiar with “The Rule of Cool.” This is the spackle to fix plot holes and forgive the unforgivable. Not recommended for first-timers, but this technique will let you get away with just about anything.
The rule of cool states that if it fits narratively, it happens. For instance, the hero gets a monologue without getting shot by the villain; the child is saved just in time, the bomb doesn’t go off in the time it takes two people to argue about how to disarm the damn thing. I typically spot it in comics; character powers or training is stretched pretty far for the sake of a joke or visual gag.
But it’s also because you’re ultimately creating a work of fiction. While it has to be believable, no one’s really going to mind that your character can hold their breath underwater for five or ten or fifteen minutes. If every detail were too concerned with being true to life, it would no longer be fictional, so the audience is willing to suspend some disbelief.
As long as the narrative supports your ultimate goal of telling a good story, you can afford to have some gratuitous fudging in there. You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to go sleuthing through your story to see if it’s a 100% comparison to real life.
Still, you could have someone look it over just in case. They’ll catch the obvious things you didn’t think about when your brain was creating this narrative masterpiece. Like, “why didn’t he just go through the door?” When someone has to ask, it’s usually not cool enough.
I like to sandbox my characters. Meaning, I draft smaller scenarios for them that I pull from day-to-day life—or day-to-day fantasies if life gets repetitive. Just the simple question of “how would my character respond to this?” can lead to a chain reaction of choices that either helps develop them further or helps me overcome a roadblock in my story.
If I’m at a loss for my own questions, there are plenty of lists online. Character creation questions or even just the game “20 Questions” gives me a good list to work through for some time. Filling these out can help hammer out some of those quirks or knives if I’m struggling to put definition into a flat story.
Any one of these suggestions is a good jumping-off point to dive into both creating and finalizing story elements. They can help you keep track of struggles and how they shape your character both in their personal journey towards their goal and in the eyes of the audience. They can also help analyze the character’s past and make it relevant to their present and future, not only as a reminder of what they’ve been through but also to raise stakes in their future.
Ultimately, these suggestions help you in that you don’t have to stress over-exaggerating a bit, as long as you’re telling a good story.
The best part about these tips is there’s no order to them. If you hit a roadblock in the backstory, throw a random knife or quirk. They all tend to link back together at the end. Knives are pulled from the backstory and lend to visual quirks, while quirks influence the story and grow knives in the process.
By the end of it all, you’ll have a fully realized character that people will relate to, or at least want to see how their journey plays out. So you get to put them through trials and tribulations so they can realize themselves.
Jamian is an experienced writer and story analyst. He took a bunch of courses about story construction and character creation and was dissatisfied with all of it. So he took a deep dive into literature. His favorite thing to do is compare and contrast media types and analyze what works and what doesn't. One day he hopes to go into screenwriting and possibly produce his own show. But until then, he'll keep writing.