Welcome to my tutorial on creating original and interesting characters while avoiding common clichés and other highly flammable material. The purpose of this guide is to demonstrate the many ways in which originality can be obtained without mauling your character beyond recognition or turning them into the next-next Chuck Norris. It will provide enlightenment on all areas of character creation, as well as the hellish fires of character corruption.
With that said, let us proceed to the lesson.
At one point or another, every author has been guilty of creating a John Smith or a Jane Doe. This section aims to reveal the enemies of character creation, so that you may shoot them the moment they enter your brain. Perhaps the greatest enemy of originality is the God Character or the Perfect Incarnation. This is the wicked tyrant that we will be discussing first.
If there is a God, it isn't You
The God Character is the person—Or alien or animal or what-have-you—that has no faults or at the most very few of them. He is the Hitler of creativity and the bane of many writers across the world. The Perfect Incarnation is handsome, charming, and talented to the point of absurdity. He never scores less than an A+ for fear that his over-bearing parents will excommunicate him for life. He is the jock, the honor student, the high school sweetheart, and the Broadway star all rolled into one, blindingly spotless package.
However, he can be beaten by following a set of rules.
- Names are not always fountain pretty. Often times, they are horrendous and repulsive. Avoid giving your characters unrealistic "stage names" that make them sound like they're expected at a film shooting. Aim instead to give them a name that is drably ordinary. If you must be exotic, then go with something that is merely uncommon. There are a lot of uncommon names out there that don't sound like the person was dropped off the back of a tour bus.
- Nobody is so talented as to be able to do anything that is presented to them. This goes for academics, games, sports, and—Where the problem seems to appear the most—fighting. Even the best student makes the occasional not-so-good grade, and even the best fighter will slip up and hack off his own foot. To avoid creating a character that is skilled beyond belief, make a point to give them plenty of faults and weak areas. This can be a school subject that they struggle with, a habit of tripping over their own feet, a weapon that they find impossibly awkward to wield, or any other kind of unfortunate attribute.
- Rarely will you walk down the street and encounter a person that is so attractive that you stare and gawk like a lovestruck fool. Avoid making your characters unbelievably beautiful as if they were a Greek Goddess or flawlessly handsome as if they were carved out of the finest marble. While there are surely pretty people out there, most folks are painfully average.
- Many times in life, a person will feel the need to rewind events and prevent themselves from saying or doing something ill conceived. Nobody always knows the right thing to say or the right thing to do. Give your character some realism by having them make the occasional poor choice.
Even Villains Slept with Stuffed Animals Once
This is the next area where I see the most clichés, and thus will be our next subject of focus. The problem that I see with most "evil" characters is that most evil characters are ridiculously evil. The evil character in the eyes of the majority lies at the deep-end of the black pool. He has no good qualities about him except for the fact that he's good at being evil. Even Hannibal Lector had friends and made his mother smile. He may have done some bad things in his life, but his entire existence didn't revolve solely around killing people. This is what folks need to realize when creating a character that could be considered immoral and perhaps even monstrous: That nobody can be defined on a black and white scale; everybody lies somewhere in the gray area.
By keeping a few things in mind, characters with immoral qualities can become more believable and less stereotypically wicked. This part of the tutorial is also helpful for avoiding the stainless saint cliché.
- People who do underhanded things like steal, cheat, lie, and kill aren't always the dullest star in the sky, just like people who do socially approved things like donating all of their money to charity aren't always the brightest, either. Shady people are often pretty clever, as they'd have to be in order to avoid getting their hands chopped off. But then a lot have just average intelligence, too, so this rule works both ways. While very dumb and exceptionally smart people exist, it's more believable to throw your character somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
- Goths wear all black, chains, and combat boots, yet can be some of the nicest people that you could meet. Just because someone wears a lot of black and bad ass accessories doesn't make them wicked, shady, or even mildly immoral. Most thieves and murderers look like your average Joe on the street in plain clothes and no-notice shoes—You couldn't pick them out just by looking at them. While there are assholes that certainly get power trips from looking like a vampire or a biker, most people of questionable status go along with the crowd.
- Contradictions run through the human race—Or in this case, furries—like a plague. Honor students with clear records could be shoplifting from malls with their friends. That jackass who always gives you a hard way to go could work as a volunteer at an animal shelter. The man on television who shot up a mall could have been the picture of sanity. People can be capable of things that one might never expect, even the seemingly lowest bastard or the purest saint. Try to give your character realistic depth by avoiding black and white images.
- Not everyone who steals does so because they're a lazy asshole who doesn't feel like working for their money. Some people can be weighted down with two jobs, be taking care of three kids, and still not be able to afford their lifestyle. Some people can be simply desperate. The same goes for people who have killed, cheated, lied, or done any other number of immoral deeds: The circumstances are not always drenched in apathetic disregard for others or a burning hatred for mankind.
John Wayne worked at an Ice Cream Stall
This part will focus on fighters of all kinds, including swordsmen, gunslingers, and even your unfriendly neighborhood bar brawler. A cliché that I often notice is the impeccable warrior, the man who cannot be beaten or at the least rarely fails. He is the John Wayne of the novel world, the Chuck Norris of literature. He is a kid's fantasy. While every piece of fiction is undoubtedly fiction, you still want your reader to believe that the characters you're proposing could actually exist. If a character is a gunslinging hero that never comes out of a duel with a scratch, then he could only be an overpaid actor who plays cowboys with people that make a career out of letting him win.
If you want to avoid an unbelievable fighter, then you should always keep the following things in the front of your brain.
- All people experience a loss every now and then. Most folks lose quite a bit. This is true for anything, not just fighting. Instead of aiming to make your character always on top, try to occasionally yank the mat out from under their feet. In role-playing, vanity can become a problem when neither person wants their character to lose in a fight. If you think a battle has gone on long enough and the other person doesn't seem like they're going to volunteer defeat, be the bigger man and take a dive. At least you'll have something to fight about later.
- Regardless of whether a character wins or loses a battle, they're going to get at least a little scuffed up if not littered with nicks and bruises. Even if you're only mentioning how much effort it takes to perform an action, it's good to put the mortality of your character on display. Nobody does a triple back-flip while holding a heavy sword "effortlessly", not even those people on TV who have spent their entire lives performing gymnastics. Even professionals have to spend some considerable energy to do what they do, and the work takes its toll in the form of pain, sweat, and exhaustion. Try to avoid giving fighting characters unbelievable amounts of stamina and skill. Make a point to have your character receive the occasional injury, and to show that the fight is taking some realistic effort on their part.
- No man alive can expertly or even moderately make use of any weapon he's handed. Weapon skills have more to do with than simple experience at handling that weapon, and are affected by personal talents, body build, age, and stamina. It takes a long time to learn how to even decently use a weapon, never mind master it if ever. Never imply that your character can use "any" weapon, and instead focus on a particular kind or family of weapons. The skill level given to your character for a particular weapon should reflect the character's age, body build, stamina, personal talents, handling experience, and whether or not he's had instruction.
- Most people in an army or warrior's union of any kind are at the lowest rung on the ladder, otherwise there would be no one to lead. There is no shame in being a simple soldier—You don't have to be a renowned Captain or a whore-laden General to be a good fighter. In order to make your character more believable, try giving them a low, humble status in exchange for flashy stars and stripes.
Instead of making an individual part for every stereotype, I only did so for the most troublesome ones and am simply going to group the rest of them here. I can't fit every character cliché into this tutorial, but I can include some of the more common enemies. In order to make things more comprehensible and concise, the following will consist of a simple list of character stereotypes, which should be used as a basic brain buster when creating characters. If one of the upcoming categories could apply to your character, you may want to rethink that character's design.
- Straight A Wonderboy
- Boring Nerd
- Untainted Saint
- Sinister Murderer
- Brainless Lackey
- No Good Street Thug
- Godlike Warrior
- Beautiful Mistress
- Dumb Bully
- Dark Mysterious Stranger
- Stoic Chief
- Useless Addict
- Irrational Lunatic
- Rugged Cowboy
- Patriotic Soldier
- Smooth Gangster
In this section, light will finally break through the darkness and shine on some healthy alternatives to terminally ill clichés. Methods on giving your Believable Bill that appealing tan will be brought into the open. Read on to be saved from the hellish fires of character corruption.
A Refill for your Imagination Drip
Perhaps the word here is not really "original" but "believable". It's hard to make a completely original character without ending up with a two-headed monster from planet Uranium, and even that's been thought of. The common misconception behind the creation of so many John Smith's is that Believable is Boring and that Unbelievable is Exciting. But the unfounded truth is that you can create believable characters while still keeping them original and interesting. After all, it's not whether you're an alien-hybrid or can speak twenty different languages that makes you complex—It's all the little details that build up over the course of your life. These are the things that spark interest and provide originality. Let's take a look at a list of tips to get that IV of creativity into your veins.
- If you're going to be creating a character for a time period other than the one taking place right now, research is your crisis counselor. Go to a library, check out some books, or for those of you who are allergic to leather, get on Wikipedia.org - It's usually quite accurate. The only way to make a good period character is to have a good amount of knowledge about the period they're from.
- Your character was not dropped off by a stork. He has parents, and therefore he also has grandparents, as well as aunts and uncles and cousins and maybe even an ex-wife and two kids that hate him. While you don't have to role-play your character's family, you should at least acknowledge that he has blood ties somewhere.
- Balance is your safety net. Sure, there are lots of people out there that seem to lack this trait, but it's a cheap solution to keep your china from falling off the shelves. When you think that your character may be looking too good, sling some mud at his sparkling white shirt. Just keep in mind that balance control also works vice versa.
- Height can be a tricky topic for furries, due to all of the various species that are given anthropomorphic qualities. My advice would be to go along with the standards of the fictional world that you're writing in, or if you're not sure, then just use the closet human equivalent. The average height for humans varies depending on ethnicity, gender, age, and diet. For stats on these factors, use Google.
- Occupations are various for all time periods and for all social classes, as well as necessary unless your character is a kid, a bum, or disabled. Money has to come from somewhere, food has to be bought, and rent has to be paid. Clearly define a job for your character, preferably something that you yourself have done or at least understand. If you'd like your character to have a career that you don't know how to accurately write, then do some research. You don't have to be an expert, but it's better to at least get the basics right.
- If your character is going to be a drifter, he still needs a way to sustain himself. This means a method of getting money and food, and shelter when the weather is unfavorable. Drifters without vehicles will usually stay with people when they get the chance, even if they don't know them very well. And since they don't stay in one place very long, it's good for them to be open to a lot of different ways to make money - A man can't just steal everything he wants without eventually getting caught. This kind of life can require a lot of charity.
- The world is diverse—That's just the way it is. Any believable environment is full of people that all have their own opinions and ways of doing things. Just because your favored character disagrees with one of your spur-of-the-moment creations, don't make the cameo out to be a complete loser only so that your shining star can look good. Be fair with your pen.
Now for the last scene. In this part, I will be providing you with useful references that can help you along the path to creating better characters. These are all websites that you can easily find online.
- Orangoo Spell Checker - Because the first step to recovery is cleaning up your act.
- Firefox - A good web browser with a good spell checker for the convenience-dependent citizen. Beats Internet Explorer any day of the week.
- Wikipedia - Perhaps the most useful resource on the Internet, Wikipedia is an extensive encyclopedia edited by people all around the world. It hosts a myriad of knowledge, spanning just about every topic that one could think of.
- Medieval Occupations - A broad list describing occupations from the medieval age.
If you have any comments or critique for this tutorial, please leave them in a reply to this thread. Thanks for reading and good luck in killing John Smith.