Guest Bloggers

What killed it for me. — Becca Puglisi

Guest Blogger Becca Puglisi, co-founder of Writers Helping Writers,  talks about clichéd characters.

It’s hard to come up with characters who are believable yet don’t sound like every other character out there. It’s especially easy to fall into this trap with certain archetypes, like witty sidekicks or wise old mentors. Unfortunately, a recent book that I started had a whole cast of clichés: the jaded, super-sarcastic teen girl hero; the loving but confused single parent; a villain in the form of a Queen Bee Mean Girl. As for the love interest and sidekick…I didn’t stick around long enough to meet them.

But even one clichéd character may be too much; you don’t want to give readers a reason to lose interest or roll their eyes when they’re introduced to a character they’ve seen a dozen times. Character creation is one of our passions at Writers Helping Writers, thanks to the research and practice we put in while writing our negative trait and positive trait thesaurus books. Here are some tips we’ve learned on how to write believable and interesting characters without repeating the stereotypes:

Explore the character’s backstory to discover her wounds. It’s easy to throw together a bunch of attributes and flaws when creating characters. But traits develop organically out of a combination of factors: upbringing, environment, basic needs, morals, past wounds, personal values, etc. It is this unique combination of elements that results in a truly unique character. To avoid recreating a character who already exists, delve deeply into her backstory. Doing so will give you the information you need to figure out exactly who she is today.

Once you’ve explored the character’s backstory, use that information to choose a combination of flaws and attributes that make sense, but are unique. For example, it makes sense for a character who was once the victim of a home invasion to be over-protective and paranoid. For me, the mention of those flaws instantly brings to mind an image—a stereotype that I’ve seen a million times. Paranoia is a logical result of this kind of traumatizing experience, but what if you combined it with other flaws or attributes to turn the stereotype on its ear? Maybe your character was raised in a very proper household where any kind of emotional extreme was taboo. So now you’ve got a genteel, mannerly character who’s scared of her own shadow—but has to hide her fears out of a desire to maintain the right image.

Creating unique characters is really just a matter of digging into their history and coming up with traits that make sense for them. For help in this area, we created a number of related resources on our Tools for Writers page, including the Reverse Backstory Tool, the Attribute Target Tool, and the Character Pyramid Tool.

Explore the positive side of negative traits, and vice versa. Clichéd characters are seen as clichés because they’re easy to read. They’re cardboard. One-dimensional. Which is ironic because character traits are anything but.

Look at John Bender, from the movie The Breakfast Club. He’s hostile, and embodies many of the expected negative associations that go with that trait: he’s volatile, verbally abusive, and has trouble connecting with others. But hostility also has some positive aspects that John exhibits. He’s fearless and uninhibited, often saying what other people are too timid to say themselves. The positive sides of this flaw make him more than just an angry character. They make him interesting and somewhat endearing because people value fearlessness and admire those who speak their minds. We want to evoke those endearing feelings in our readers, so make sure to explore both sides of your character’s defining traits and you’re sure to come up with someone unique and compelling.

Don’t forget the quirks and idiosyncrasies. Certain character types—like adventure heroes and detectives—easily fall into stereotypes. If you want your hero to be different, give him something interesting that will make him stand out from the crowd. Indiana Jones? Afraid of snakes. Captain Jack Sparrow is a cowardly pirate. And for those of you who remember Kojak, what comes to mind when you hear that name? Bald guys and lollipops, right? Mission accomplished.

A word of caution regarding quirks, though: if they’re thrown in off-handedly, they can feel clumsy and contrived. Find something that makes sense for your character based on his backstory and personality and you’ll have something that is believable rather than gimmicky.

Add an inner goal. Another reason detectives and adventurers tend to resemble each other is because they all have the same goal: to find the treasure or solve the case. But what if your character also has an internal goal—something he needs to overcome or wants to achieve that will result in personal growth?

In The Bone Collector, Lincoln Rhyme is an ex-forensics specialist on the trail of a serial killer in New York City. This is his outer goal: to find the killer. Just like any other detective story, eh? Except that Lincoln Rhyme is a paraplegic. That’s enough to make him interesting, but there’s more: it’s made clear from the beginning of the story that the thing Rhyme wants more than anything is to die. He’s made plans for his “final transition” and is seemingly at peace with it because he thinks this will make him more happy and fulfilled.

By adding an internal goal, Deaver adds a dimension to his main character that makes him different from other detectives. Keep this in mind for your own heroes. For more information about internal goals and motivations, check out Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell.

Becca PuglisiCharacter creation is tricky, but with a little extra backstory digging and these tips, there’s no limit to the number of unique and resonant characters that we can create. Happy writing!

This post is the fourth in a series entitled “What Killed It For Me,” where Becca explores the reasons she stopped reading certain books and shares techniques to help writers avoid these pitfalls. The rest of the series can be found here.

Becca Puglisi is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others. This is one of her reasons for writing The Emotion Thesaurus, The Positive Trait Thesaurus, and The Negative Trait Thesaurus. A member of SCBWI, she leads regional and online workshops and can be found at Writers Helping Writers.


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  1. Ke11y

    I dedicate this piece to Marlene (The real Lori) Thank you seems so little.

    The way I’m with my friends is, while explaining a paradoxical trait to become more the gregarious loner, to be closer through my work, to communicate with them on the page rather than over drinks. I think it was Proust who claimed the only way he could truly be with his friends was to first leave them. I get that.

    The one thing I enjoy about writing is the independence it offers me. Thinking and being on my own. That said, I know I will not be the writer I eventually want to be without listening to advice. Time was I never sought such a thing, simply wrote freely hundreds and hundreds of drafts. When I look back, I was correcting what I believed to be wrong; what I should have been doing was looking at what I did right, and improve on those things. What, after-all, did I want to achieve? It wasn’t clear for a long time, but to be thoughtful, to be articulate, even eloquent on the page. That vanity has not diminished. All this is good. But there has to be something more important. After so many years the pin fell on its point! I want it to be fun. Today writing is the most fun I can have on my own.

    “Mr. Frank…can you hear me?” The voice drifts across on the wind, settling somewhere between my ears.

    I look toward the gate, the source of the noise between my ears. My heart does that little ‘flippy’ thing.

    “Coming, Lori.”

    Together we ease open the big wrought iron gates.

    “I came yesterday, Mr. Frank…you didn’t hear me calling?” She says, reaching her hand into mine.

    Where is inspiration if not in the hand of child?

    “You did…?” I realize that sometimes I’m not open to my friends.

    “I think you were busy being alone. You like that, don’t you…” I would have answered something; something that might not hurt her, but she went on… “Will you give me a piggy back, Mr. Frank?”

    I lay awake hour after hour, night after night, trying to imagine why I want so much to escape from reality: to be infernally alone with just my thoughts, my imagination glowing red, making thought my language. Giddy, full of hope, anticipation.

    “Sure, here…” and with a twirl I take her up onto my shoulders.

    Writing is about reaching new heights, moments of pure emotion, defining real excitement, to see and feel things in a new way, from different perspectives; seeing life beyond the gates. To carry a story forward the way one would carry a child.

    “It’s kind of scary, Mr. Frank…” I feel the warmth of her hands on my head, the trust, and yes, the trepidation.

    “I’ve got you, Lori…you’re safe.”

    “Because you love me…?”

    How much better to be a friend, and have their utter trust. To have been with them, when all they hold in their hand is shredded tissue, and to understand why it is they keep a scrapbook on the bedside table. To be a friend to any child: the sissy, the dumb kid, the smart, rich kid, or poor kid, the kids who wear thick glasses, the show offs, the cripples, yes, especially the crippled child.

    “Yes, Lori, that is indeed why.” She leans forward putting her hands under my chin, whispering into my ear.

    It may be that when the creative juices determine, a friend might say something he or she would not say in the reality; encourage this change, for are we not trying to create a different voice from the real life model.

    “I hate you, Mr. Frank…when something, or someone occupies your mind so much that you forget me; I hate you for allowing that.”

    Shame is a strong and powerful emotion; it has a feeling all of its own, and one that sits uneasily on the page, quite different from embarrassment. I’m not good at shame. Embarrassment, well, yes, I perfected this in life. The hardest thing to do, I have found, is to feel helpful toward a friend going through a period of shame. All these years the memory of my love, and how I failed in its duty. Oh God!

    “I’m sorry, Lori…” I’m guilt’s target, and her aim is true, no one person ever missed me, not once.

    “I love you…“ she whispers, “…just be here for me, okay?”

    Clichés, like spitting blood, mark a bruise on the page, rupturing our character on the inside.

    Our perspectives change when the position from which we observe is a different viewpoint.

    “I will, Lori. It won’t happen again.”

    She rolls my ears over, touches my face; love coming through her fingers, cooling my skin, inflating a ruptured heart.

    “Put me down here, Mr. Frank.”

    The sky is opening less pale. I cannot think of being alone, feeling a hand on my cheek, an urge for a child to be friends. Maybe she came out of a dream, maybe through the gate, after weeping, lying on her side, because she’d been alone with whatever she needed. There are times when I care so little I want to maim the story’s concept, really hurt it, but then the story is my pride, my joy; still is.

    “Help me with the gate, Mr. Frank?” She walks through, looking over her shoulder at me.

    “I’ll be here at home, working. Nothing comes to me but you. Come back soon, okay?” I tell her.

    It’s a strange feeling, this writing: the unfamiliar, yet familiar; the real, the deep sadness, and yet heart-stopping relief. I will miss her so much. At the same time, for my purposes, she isn’t leaving fast enough.

    I cannot wait another minute to start caring so much.

    1. mcullen Post author

      When I first read this, I was overcome with emotion. . . strong feelings that aren’t easily defined. An overwhelming feeling of love and joy at this (once again) tender writing. With the second reading, when I can be more analytical, I realize I love the interaction between Mr. Frank and Lori. I treasure their characters and am especially impressed by your ability, Kelly, to create such viable characters. . . it’s like when I read a good book. . . I feel as though those characters are alive somewhere, sleeping when I sleep, eat when I’m eating and going on about their errands and their lives as I am. Such sweet and tender characters. I’m lucky to meet them.

    2. Becca Puglisi

      Such beautiful imagery here, Kelly. There’s a lot of strong emotion with few words. Thanks for sharing :).

  2. Kathy Myers

    These look like helpful tools for characterization. Let’s see: identifying negative and positive traits, idiosyncrasies, emotions, and connecting their “back story” to their present behavior. Well friends, it looks like my forty years working in psychiatry will give me a leg up when writing believable characters. Who knew all that work was merely preparation for my second career.
    It’s fun to avoid a cliche character by having them do the direct opposite of what the reader might expect. It usually turns out more realistic. I call it the George Costanza technique (all you Seinfeld fans will get that reference.) Try it you’ll like it.

    1. Becca Puglisi

      Hi, Kathy! Yes, I have no doubt that a career in psychology gives you a leg up in the characterization department. George Costanza is an awesome example of the unexpected character. But then, so was so much of the Seinfeld cast. 🙂

  3. heartmom

    Such delicious “food for thought” – thank you Becca. I’ve just subscribed to the Writers Helping Writers newsletter, and am excited to incorporate the tips you recommended here on The Write Spot blog.

    1. Becca Puglisi

      Thanks for signing up, heart mom :). There will be a new newsletter coming out in the next few weeks; I hope you find something useful in it!

  4. Ke11y

    Reality? Well, it’s what I imagine. Respectfully, I’m an undisciplined writer. If I sit down to consider every aspect of what is correct with my work, or worse still, what is incorrect, I couldn’t write a cartoon joke, let alone a novel. The use of adverbs, right and wrong, the pitfalls of cliché’s, good and bad, all important stuff in the art, but serves only to stifle me from ever completing a story. Here’s the real clincher; once I’ve completed a story, I’m done with it. The very idea that I might go back over it, improve it, correct it, nah! It’s done. Move on. There are a thousand stories waiting to be written. Just get on with it, I tell myself.

    I struggle with the correct usage of the words: ‘past’ and ‘passed’. Look, honestly, here’s the thing. Sitting here in my study, I wonder about so many things. I don’t know the intricacies of grammar, and maybe it doesn’t matter if I don’t have the skill of an engineer, or the intrigue of a scientist, because I’ve got something; I get to feel something. I can neither describe it, paint it, nor prove how it was, is, or will be. It’s just me, a common man in a privileged place, and time, playing with my imagination.

    So look, let my brain work freely in this way. It’s just me, meeting you, the reader, and wondering if you’ll spend a moment or two with me on this page, even with all my faults. How much will you forgive me, maybe, if I’m disrespectful of your knowledge of grammar but can hold your interest?

    All morning the sun has shone down on my head, the cool ocean breeze ruffled the tablecloth on the table where I had lunch. You are out there, living your life, I am here. Writer and reader. Our worlds are about to converge. I cannot convincingly tell myself all that you have come to mean to me, something prevents that completeness. Fear, maybe. I have loved my world, loved the mystical, beautiful, and bigger world of my imagination. What right do I have to expect that you, reading my words, might stay, read along, and enjoy me in my world for ten minutes?

    I read today there are seven major word classes: verb, noun, determiner, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction. Wow, really? I’ve reach almost my seventieth year and can’t for the life fully explain to a teacher’s satisfaction what words fall into which group! (Or should that be which words fall into what group?) So there’s my dilemma, my lack of interest in the grammatical correctness. I mean, honestly, I wish I knew. I’m not playing a game. It is sadness to me, but will I learn, or will I write stories? Those of you who have witnessed the degree to which I abuse the good nature of Marlene by indulging myself with writing placed on this site need no answer to my question. I just write. I write because I have no control over when, how, or why. Is it good? Heck, it’s not a question I ever ask myself. Never. It is just what it is.

    Maybe you will be asking yourself: what is the purpose of this piece of writing? Well, I’m a writer who truly cares little for correctness, and more about rhythm, music. Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever going to be capable of writing something so beautiful, the reader will want to have those words close by, not just for ten minutes, or ten days, but buried, yet retrievable in time of doubt or stress. In the end my point is this: I cannot think about correctness, I can only feel my words, and maybe they won’t speak to the world at large, but neither can I write without affecting other people, and it is futile for me to say: ‘It does not matter to others what I say; nobody knows better than I; and anyway it concerns only myself.’ When the fact is my innermost thought will affect the whole world in which I live, and whatever moral standard I’m going to adopt I must accept that my ‘standard’ will indeed affect other people, and that it is absolutely impossible for me to act or think alone.

    My characters, then, must be honest with their own tragedies, each one must prove to me they can stand in the wind, the saltier the better. But for me, reality? Well, it’s what I imagine. My mind is a blank canvas, my stage on which to write, your stage to read, so let’s do the dance and clear the floor for miracles.

    1. mcullen Post author

      I enjoy the variety of your writing abilities,Kelly. Sometimes your words hurry along, quick to tell the story with an urgent energy. Other times, like now, you slow the pace to a thought-filled gait, allowing the reader to travel with you through a field of introspection. It’s all good, awesome writing. Entertaining and enjoyable to read.

  5. Ke11y

    The ‘character’ I am presently working with.

    While the superficial regions of Jude Tiscari’s mind are occupied with past blasphemies, betrayal, and his subsequent obscurity throughout eternity; and while his outward life is as depraved as his humble circumstances permit, at the core of his being he is truly seeking forgiveness. There is no prospect of illness on the horizon, no sign of financial difficulty, no burden of responsibility but to love. It has not been easy to reinvent his life, have people believe that a dead man lives on, hidden from view, from their affections, from their criticisms.

    Jude looks out across the Pacific Ocean from his vantage point atop Goat Rock, just outside the town of Jenner, on the western shores of California; a long way from the subway station in north London, but for Jude distance is no more than a thought process; a longer thought process than maybe Greece, or Turkey, or Galilee. He’d tried meditating in sunless lands, amid colder climates, with deeper ravines and higher mountains, but he always came back to Goat Rock. He mused alone, thoughts deep in his ancient mind, lips mumbling: This is the penalty, right? Not the immortality, but the loss of love.

    There is no forgiveness for Jude. In fact, if he has a smell about him, some would say it is that of funeral flowers. It was the deceit, the betrayal, the unfaithfulness, a kiss that now confines him to live in eternity; never again to deceive…never fulfill any aspect of love, except nurture it…never do anything but live with betrayal. And there’s never going to be an end to it; no cancer, no single shot to the head, just the memory of that dreadful moment in time…that moment of human weakness…and so it is that Jude moves inside the monstrous memories, those last longings, living with the beggars, bandits, and other friends of death. Throughout eternity, he lives with the indignity, the concussion of acceptance; the wrong-doing and its final consequence. Above his head, seagulls shriek their condemnation. It matters not, the gnashing of teeth, the hissings of his own hell’s fire, or the battle for his soul.

    Sitting high on the Mendocino rocks at midnight; he digs inside his coat pocket, searching for a cigarette, and pulls out a half-crumpled pack of Marlboro Lights, which he taps against the palm of his hand, slipping out a damaged smoke, which he shoots to the side of his mouth, and there it hangs, loosely, trembling between his lips while he flutters a flame all around it. Never once, not in two thousand years, had one friendship been improved upon once they knew about him. He drew deeply on the cigarette, holding the smoke in his lungs for a long time. It calmed him.

    Having used a thousand aliases, he looks and acts like any other man; adopted the same habits, and been careful to adjust his behavior to any society in which he found himself. A gift, some called it; mostly those who’d not found any other way to explain his ability to forecast events. Truth told, Jude has witnessed every change, every deception, every misguided truth that has occurred during two thousand years, and the only thing, in all that time, that has remained the same, is the sun’s setting; the pinks and gold.

    There’s never going to be forgiveness for Jude. In fact, if Jude has a smell about him, it’s that of funeral flowers. It was the deceit, more than the betrayal. It was the unfaithfulness, the kiss that now confines him to eternity; never again to deceive…never fulfill any aspect of love…never do anything but live in eternity. There will never be an end to it; no cancer, no single shot to the head, just the living with the memory of that dreadful moment in time… that moment of human weakness… all of it now standing alongside the lightning and thunder of history. Having long suffered the concussion of his wrong-doing, Jude Tiscari has accepted its final consequence.

    Jude gets to his feet, eyes searching across the Pacific Ocean’s wilderness, and takes one last drag on his cigarette. It is snowing in New York, raining in Paris, burning up in Delhi, and he feels it all. In London the last sound of the midnight bells are fading. Kathryn is sleeping, but even so, he will never dare come close enough to kiss her cheek. The sun is down, and now the choice is his; he can go east or west; all he has to do is decide. With no regret for the day’s extinguished sun, which, like him, always returns on the morrow, and sworn to his search for divine brightness, and forgiveness, he stretches one leg over the James Dean 1955 Triumph TR5 Trophy, and blows away into the darkness.

    1. mcullen Post author

      Good edgy writing. I held my breath as I read, wondering what angst, what details would next be revealed. Clever writing with aspects of depth and underlying meaning. Certain lines linger:
      “a long way from the subway station in north London, but for Jude distance is no more than a thought process”
      “This is the penalty, right? Not the immortality, but the loss of love”
      “There is no forgiveness for Jude. In fact, if he has a smell about him, some would say it is that of funeral flowers”
      and the winning last line. This is Wow Writing!

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