Sometimes your characters just seem fake. You’ve heard the term–cardboard cutout. It means that they’re totally predictable and non-intriguing. They’re flat. Stale. Overused.
So how do you get them to shine?
You make ‘em talk, that’s what.
This is a common exercise in the world of writers, and it works for the most part because you’re literally getting to know your character. But many times your character will feed you lies and you won’t even realize it – little clichés that have entwined themselves with the person’s story.
What I’m suggesting is that you should talk to them differently. Be forceful. Interrogate them. Twist, exaggerate, justify, and repeat.
When you first have an idea for a character, it’s pretty vague. You have the basics – their career, what they need to do in the story, maybe even a few awkward family/friend relations. But you don’t really know them, just like you don’t really know the person you met at the grocery store. They’re just a shadow with a few form-details.
To get that sense of uniqueness, start with a twist:
Who are you, Jimmy?
I’m the paper-boy for my neighborhood! Ju – just the p-paper boy! I ride my bike every day around –
You’re lying. I know something’s up, Jimmy, and we’ll talk until you spill your guts.
No, really, I’m telling the truth!
Oh? Would Mr. Mason say so?
I – how – Where is he?
Answer the question.
…What will you do to me?
This is your first and only chance to cooperate before I let the other guys in here. And I can’t guarantee that you’ll like what they have to say.
…I – I don’t know how it happened. We were just riding down Main when these guys jumped us and stole our bikes. We chased them into the woods, all the way to the middle… They had a lab going on out there. It was the freakiest thing I’d ever seen. They threatened us. I swear, they were going to kill us. But then Mason offered to sell their drugs. I didn’t have anything to do with it, but they wouldn’t let me go until I agreed. It wasn’t my fault –
What happened after that?
They said they’d keep a watch on us. They gave us envelopes filled with the stuff – we delivered them to a list of addresses.
This is obviously a radical example, and very literally an interrogation, but you can modify it to fit any scenario. Play the part of a friend, coaxing gossip out of a teenage girl just to see if she’s the type of person to bend. Make something unexpected happen in your character’s personality.
Next, exaggerate an aspect of your character. Maybe it’s an admirable trait. Maybe it’s an obsession. We like to read about larger-than-life characters who do things that normal people wouldn’t dare:
Why did you choose to get involved?
I told you, it wasn’t my choice.
Allow me to clarify. Why did you run after the thugs who you knew to be dangerous?
I can’t stand bullies. They make me so angry. When they took off with our bikes, something snapped and I just couldn’t let them get away. Don’t know what I was thinking – there were so many of ‘em. But it didn’t matter. They were bullying, and I wasn’t gonna let that happen.
There. Now we have a Jimmy who is strongly opposed to bullies. This is something that readers will latch on to. In the future, if a new bully enters the story, they’ll be expecting him to do something about it. This sort of thing, aside from defining your character, will give prime opportunities for him/her to screw up. For example, what if a guy walks up and gives Jimmy a playful punch? Will he misunderstand, and fight back? Or will he be able to differentiate between real and pretend aggressiveness?
This could depend on how exaggerated your character’s trait is. And that will depend on how the trait developed. So, naturally, it’s time to justify:
Sounds like you have a problem with bullies. How’s the life at home?
Photo courtesy of Morguefile.com
Well, it’s okay. Mom’s working two jobs. Dad’s in prison. So the only other people in my house besides me are my older brother and sister.
I see. Are they ever aggressive?
Not physically, no. But they always throw parties in the basement, and their friends can be real jerks. When I ask them not to invite those people, they make fun of me. They tell me I have no friends.
And what do you do about that?
Well, my brother would kill me if I got in the way of their fun. So I usually leave the house or stay up in my room. It’s hard to just walk away – it’s like trying to tame a rhino, or something.
After going through this process once, Jimmy is a much more interesting character than just a paper-boy. He’s got a trait that readers will sympathize with, and a way to back it up. In no way is he a complete character, but he will be, once you repeat. Pick an aspect of Jimmy’s story that seems a little too cliché or boring. Maybe it’s the part where he says one parent’s in prison and the other is always gone. That’s a pretty popular scenario. Go through the process again, focusing on that issue. See how you can make things even more interesting.
Remember that nobody is one-hundred percent unique, so at some point it is okay to stop twisting and exaggerating. You will know that you’ve done enough when you feel a burning excitement for your character and their struggles.
HAVE YOU EVER INTERROGATED YOUR CHARACTERS? WHAT SECRET HAVE THEY TOLD YOU?