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I think it's hard to make a character standout and embody their traits without becoming cliched or cartoons. How do you do this? What are some tips to enlivening a character and making them memorable?

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There's two issues here. In no particular order:

  • Avoid cliche
  • Make Quintessential

Some of the best advice I ever had about making quintessential characters came from James N. Frey author of "How To Write Damn Good Fiction". In that book he gave two essential pointers to making a good protagonist which is a great start. Again in no particular order:

  • Make them capable
  • Make them universally sympathetic

Going to the current market leader in quintessential but accessible characters Pixar if we look at Woody from Toy Story Pixar nail that. He is shown to be a great leader with a balance of energy, humility and kindness. However he is also afraid of being abandoned, obsolete, finished with. Being made redundant, in all senses is a basic human fear and Pixar tap into that.

This dichotomy between capability and sympathy is a useful one. Most characters could do with having one attractive quality and one sympathetic one, even those supposed to be antagonistic.

To go deeper, however, many writers give characters "flaws" in the hope that this will add dimension. While it's true that perfect characters are grating in the extreme a flaw doesn't automatically avoid cliche. For example the self-destructive cop, the neurotic beauty and the anti-social genius all present some attractive qualities and some flaws. All are cliches. Not only that but it is possible to write characters like this who are not at all quintessential, in these instances they seem like cardboardy facsimiles of their quintessentially fun but cliched counterparts in other stories.

This seems to leave us up a tree. We can make a character capable, sympathetic and flawed but still cliched and possibly not even very convincing (although the more they are sympathetic the less they may seem unconvincing).

The final part of a really complex character is to go into the business of archetypes. There are many weighty articles available on the topic of archetypes but the one I found most revealing actually dealt with hero character archetypes in romantic fiction. There are two articles one about male archetypes and one about female archetypes.

Before you tune out. Yes, romance novels use cliche like a baker uses flour, but like many things complex constructs are made of simple ones and I found the hero archetypes discussed in these articles to be like a list of primary colours for character building. What occurred to me is that a proper multi-dimensional character uses these character archetypes like paint makes a beautiful picture, mixing, blending and shifting. Where as colour and tone are positional on a canvas a character's tone and shade are defined by the context in which they find themselves in the story. A deep character sees themselves as various archetypes in different contexts, one archetype for work, one for relationships, one for being a parent.

To go even deeper maybe certain common situations cause them to use other archetypal behaviours in certain situations within those contexts e.g. mostly they are a "chief" type parent but when it comes to discipline they find themselves unable to be authoritarian and instead fold to become the "best friend" type giving their own children mixed messages about authority and morality.

The key thing is that hero archetypes often relate to the way a person sees themselves as an actor in their own life. People are constantly trying to live up to their own expectations of what they "should" be doing. Most people don't see their lives as one story, people change their own archetypal make up within single relationships, within life situations and even within the stuff of life such as marriage, parenthood or education. As my wife put it after reading the list of archetypes: "I can be all of those within a period of four hours"

In fact although the articles linked above talk about "male" and "female" archetypes I would tend to rather classify them as "rational active" and "emotional passive" archetypes allowing the sixteen of them to be unisex. So a very male character could find himself resorting to a "female" archetype in a certain situation or even in a single archetype about a particular emotional topic.

The final factor to consider is that although in a hero's story a hero's behaviour is correct and proper the lines between "good", "evil", "right" and "wrong are a lot blurrier in reality. So most people behave as if they are some kind of hero whether it is appropriate for the situation or not. On such rocky ground are the foundations of self-justification laid.

So in our quest for quintessence without cliche we've gone from the simple business of vetting our characters for properties of capability and relatability to the need to make characters a melange of different archetypal flavours and colours. I think the "attractive/sympathetic" dynamic is the most important part to making characters people want to spend time with. Sympathetic is essential at all times. Giving people random flaws which can't be attributed to any realistic motivation is what tends to let characters fall flat.

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+1 for using a cartoon character to illustrate how not to be cartoony. –  atroon Jan 31 '11 at 23:09
    
Just to clarify, the Woody example is about the quintessential part, not the other part. :P –  One Monkey Oct 7 '11 at 18:35
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Some of the best advice I've heard on characterization involves the motivations of your characters.

It's easy to create characters that are dead-set on a single goal, but this isn't very realistic. Most people have multiple motivations and multiple goals. Characters with various interests and desires feel more real. This is a great way to flesh out a character that seems to fall flat.

Furthermore, people frequently have goals and motivations that conflict with one another. We have internal conflicts, uncertainties and doubts. A character with conflicting goals is usually far more interesting than one who wants only one thing, or even one with diverse desires, but no inner conflict.

Imagine a story about a police detective who is trying to take down a gang. He has a vested interest, because he believes they're responsible for the drive-by that killed his son. Now imagine his wife has a painful disease that can only be cured with expensive surgery. The gang, knowing that he's on to them, try to bribe him to look the other way. Accepting the bribe would allow him to pay for the surgery.

Granted, it's a bit clichéd, but you can see how a character with conflicting motivations is more interesting than a single-minded one. Characters with conflicting motivations have to make a choice, and when they make that choice, they're going to lose something. That choice, and the accompanying loss, can be very powerful.

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Make them human. Too many people make their characters perfect and without flaws - those aren't realistic characters. Real people have flaws, they make mistakes, and they learn from those. This isn't just referring to your protagonist but your antagonist too. Too many authors make their bad guys absolutely evil. There are very few people in the world that are 100% bad. Many do have some good qualities.

When you read through your manuscript, ask yourself if you could see this person walking down the street. If you saw someone acting like them in real life, would be think they're being fake? Or would it seem natural?

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