The hardboiled detective, the spoiled princess, the bad boy with a heart of gold, the diamond-in-the-rough heroine—surely, these sound familiar. We’ve read them, and we may have written them. Call them tropes or archetypes, but they’re recognizable characters who can easily fall flat on the page. And flat characters are about as appealing as over-chewed gum.
Sure, stereotypes hit at something, but they aren’t the whole story—and certainly not an interesting story to read. We want three-dimensional characters that readers care about, characters who feel real.
So how can we writers get readers to care? How can we add flesh and bone? How can we freshen up our characters? Let’s talk about some twists.
Twist the Type. Here’s a tried-and-true trope: the Cinderella story. Cinderella characters go from rags to riches, from neglected to noticed, from loneliness to love. We’ve seen umpteen renditions of this basic tale, so what makes your character fresh?
Well, what if your Cinderella is an outcast because she’s a cyborg, and her “glass slipper” is a robotic foot? That’s Cinder by Marissa Meyer, in which she twists the type to bring Cinderella into a sci-fi world and make her original and engaging.
You might recognize other twists, like Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, who retold Romeo and Juliet, but with vampires and humans instead of Montagues and Capulets. Or Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, who featured gladiators fighting to the finish, but instead of trained warriors, the contenders are children.
To twist the type, think “What if instead of ___, the character is actually ___?” You can likely come up with some great ways to infuse a familiar type with new perspective.
Twist the Motivation. The beauty of reading a story is seeing not only the outside persona of a character, but also the internal motivation. Even if it looks to others like a stereotype, you can establish a different story beneath the surface.
Let’s take a literary character we all know: Batman. He wears a mask and tights, fights crime, drives a super-cool car, and keeps a bunch of technology in a cave. Okay, that’s intriguing, albeit odd. But it’s his personal, childhood wound of his parents’ murder that makes his choices understandable and compelling. Once he’s a guy who experiences grief like us, he becomes real and worth cheering for. Knowing his motivation deepens the character.
Ask why your billionaire has pursued fortune above all else, why your villain must steal government secrets, why your cheerleader wants to be homecoming queen, why your werewolf must find a mate. Find the wound or reason why your character has chosen their outside persona, and then show the deeper motivation.
Twist the Setting. Once there was a golden age of Westerns, but it seemed to be dying out. Until George Lucas brought us a brand-new western, set in space: Star Wars. We got spaceships instead of horses, lightsabers instead of guns, a saloon of disreputable aliens instead of a saloon of disreputable humans. He even put the villain in a black hat, or helmet – whatever. By changing the setting, he delivered recognizable characters with a new set of adventures, which alters how they react and how we react to them.
The grief counselor told the group to be grateful for what they had left. After lots of considering, Charla Rae decided she was grateful for the bull semen.
Welcome to the world of professional bull riding, a world I sure hadn’t been in before. It’s a fresh setting with distinct challenges and deepens my interest in the characters.
Whether it’s the whole novel or a particular scene, consider other backgrounds or locations that put your characters in a new light, test them more, and bring a brand-new perspective.
How can you use these three quick tips—twist the type, twist the motivation, and twist the setting—to make your characters become more real and engaging?
Julie Glover writes young adult fiction, collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for the interrobang. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. She teaches a YA character course for the online Lawson Academy and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.