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Often I read a new book only to find that the characters are flat, boring, and lacking in personality. Sometimes I even find that in my own characters, and when that happens I usually just remove it. Does anyone have suggestions on how you can keep this from happening with your own characters?

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If your characters never surprise you, they will never surprise anyone else. Give them the freedom to be human, to act and speak of their own accord rather than rigidly adhere to the skeleton of a plot outline. –  Robusto Aug 8 '11 at 15:15
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Characters tend to be boring if they're just normal, or mundane. To generalise, people want to read about characters that are slightly larger than life. I don't mean they should be eccentric, but they're that much more real, more determined, more passionate, cleverer, more diabolical, weaker, stronger than everyday people. They need to be dynamic characters, and by dynamic I mean they must not only suffer but be able to act in the face of their conflicts and dilemmas.

If you're using the words flat and boring, it invariably means that you have not created a well-rounded character that is full of the complex and often contradicting emotions, motives and desires that bring characters to life, characters that speak of an existence long before the story you are telling. The only way to achieve that is to answer all the possible questions you can think of asking about them, questions that cover three broad areas: the physiological (physical traits); the sociological (social class, education, childhood, friends, parents i.e. the events and history that shaped the development of the character); and the psychological (the result of the other two areas, things like phobias, weaknesses, guilt, emotions, intelligence and so on).

The best way to accomplish this is simply understanding people. Walk in their shoes. Why do they do or say the things they do? Ask questions of your friends, family, business acquaintances, even strangers. Why does the secretary at your work like sewing? What does she hope to be one day? Why did your friend not go to that particular party when the girl he liked would be there? Also, read newspapers, and delve into the people involve in the stories. Why did this woman steal people's identities? Why did that man kill his wife? Pay attention the mannerisms that people have, the little habits and things they do without even realising. Perhaps always playing with the hair, or flicking it back subconsciously out of the eyes. Or biting the lips.

Once you've created character sketches and done background research, the other factor to keep in mind is that you need to avoid clichés and stereotypes. The model who sees a fat girl in the mirror, and has an eating disorder. The crazy scientist. The happy, plump butcher with a red face. This doesn't mean you can't use these characters, but you need to play on these stereotypes and clichés so that you surprise your reader. The crazy scientist who isn't crazy, and merely cultivates this image because he feels he's a fraud, and uses it to hide his inadequacies, for example.

The best tip, really, is to just keep asking questions. Interview your character on a piece of paper. What would they say? What would you ask? What would the character's friends say if your were asking them about your character?

Keep in mind, too, that you should try focus on the characteristics that will have a bearing in relation to the story. This will bring out the best conflict for your characters, and help create obstacles. A basic example: a woman who is scared of dogs because of an attack in her childhood has a new neighbour that breeds pit-bulls, and she suspects he conducts illegal dog fights in an underground cellar. Or perhaps you make a male teacher so attractive that his classes are always filled with women, and no-one takes his ideas seriously. Choosing traits and characteristics with your story in mind is what will bring out the best (or worst) in your characters, and make them ooze personality.

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The two main reasons for boring characters:

  • Missing eccentric behaviour
  • Missing conflicts

Eccentric behaviour:

The character is too good/too bad. He has never stolen something from a friend, never smoked, never drunk too much, never lied to his mother and caused much of trouble. Is he a decorated police officer and best father ever? Then he should have drown puppies when he was twelve.

The character has no quirks. Does he scratch his crotch in public? No? Why not? Does he have problems when encountering women? Encountering the world? Does he stand still for a minute with his mind wandering away? Does he get easily angry, shout at people, when someone mentions politics?

Characters need some imperfection to make them more like the reader. No-one is perfect. To identify with a character, he must be also imperfect.

Conflicts:

Maybe you have concentrated too much on the main conflict of the story. But the character needs to solve minor problems as well, like stress with the partner, or his kid has to repeat a school year. With these extra conflicts you get a more authentic character.

Also look at these related topics:
What does Character development actually mean?
Signs of Bad Character Development

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drowning puppies?! You couldn't come up with a less sadistic character flaw, like stealing cigarettes and breaking car windows? –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 7 '11 at 19:51
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@Lauren: Why do you think it is called conflict? ;) –  John Smithers Aug 7 '11 at 20:12
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Everyone's mentioned the key points, but there's also a few exercises I like to use for digging deeper into those quirks and flaws of my characters.

One thing I use for exploring characters is to take them completely out of their element and see what happens from there. For example, take your medieval fantasy character and put them in the middle of a Black Friday sale. What happens next? How do they react? You'd be surprised what you discover about a character when they're placed in a totally different environment, and also, what happens will be completely character-driven instead of world or plot driven.

Going 'What if...' is also useful. What if they had a week off and all the money in the world? What if they had to choose between losing an arm or a leg? What if they knew the world was going to end tomorrow? What if they had to kill and skin a cute fluffy creature? What if the sports team they followed lost a key match? It can be as trite or as philosophical as you want (though I admit I enjoy the trite!).

My final (and somewhat random) suggestion is to think about their sense of humour. What makes them crack a smile? Laugh uproariously (do they even do that?)? Do they have a public and private sense of humour? Again, you'd be surprised what this can reveal about your character, and it tends to give them more dimension.

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