Avoiding Cliche Characters

Writing good, well-rounded characters can be difficult—particularly when there are dozens of tropes and clichés that exist. However, there are a couple of tricks I have discovered that can help avoid those obstacles.

For me, I tend to start with a cliché version of a character. It’s usually something similar to other characters I have read about or seen in a movie or tv show. However, I don’t want my characters to be like those that have come before. So I come up with the characteristics that I definitely want them to have. For example, if I am writing a typical “queen bee” female character – you know, the one that is the popular girl who hates on the main character – I would do the following:

Typical Characteristics Characteristics I want
Wealthy No
Pretty Yes
Stuck-up Yes
Popular Yes
Extreme Intelligence (either
dull or very smart)
In the way of love interest Yes
Ex-best friend Yes

Then, I would create additional characteristics that don’t fit the mold, like:

  • Daily interaction with the main character in a family setting
  • Lack of popularity among other siblings at home (reverse of school)
  • Jealousy of main character

This way, my character is familiar to readers, but not too familiar where she feels overdone and overused. Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be limited to personality or situational characteristics. Instead of your knight in shining armor being tall, dark and handsome, why not make him a little pudgy with a blond buzz cut and glasses?

Another trick I am particularly fond of is interviewing your characters. Come up with a standard list of questions to ask your characters and role play that you are them. Your character will become more realistic, and by default less cliché. Because honestly, how many people have you met in real life that are cliché versions of themselves?

Here are a couple of questions that I like to use, but sometimes it’s good to create some additional questions that are centered around events or hypothetical events in your work.

  1. Who is your best friend and why?
  2. What is your biggest pet peeve?
  3. What is the one thing you want most in life?
  4. What stands in your way of getting it?
  5. What is the most extreme thing you would be willing to do to get it?
  6. If x happened, what would you do?
  7. What is one thing you would change about yourself?
  8. Who is the one person you couldn’t live without.

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