So, there’s this girl.
She’s around 16-17 years old and lives in a dystopian world. Despite her plainness and general clumsiness, she manages to save society from crumbling and has two mysterious, lone wolf boys fight over her.
Sound familiar? It should. Some would argue that this character has headed The Hunger Games, Divergent, Uglies, Twilight (kind of), and countless other novels. While some iterations may be more memorable than others (Katniss for the win), others are played simply as a cardboard cut-out for teenage girls to self-insert themselves into romance triangles. I felt this way particularly while reading Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. Despite its rave reviews, I had a hard time understanding the novel’s appeal. Recently, I figured out the reason for my disconnect. The protagonist is completely forgettable. I don’t even remember her name. Was it…Tally? That sounds right.
I don’t mean to trash YA Dystopia, though. No matter the genre or age level, stereotypes are present in many books. Why is this? Why would an author build this complex world just to put a white bread protagonist in the center?
For one, it’s easy. Coming up with specific personalities and quirks can be difficult for some writers, and I understand that. That extra bit of effort, though, can add so much to a story. Why do I remember Katniss Everdeen more than Tally Youngblood (yeah, I looked up her name)?
Well, there’s no definitive way to write a memorable character, but some things may help.
As a beginning tip, AVOID LAZY STEREOTYPES. Try and flesh out a character (even if they’re supporting) more than closeted-and-awkward-gay-boy or manic-pixie-dream-girl-that’s-also-alternative.
John Green gets a lot of flack for the last example, but his stories subvert expectations more than they get credit for. An openly flamboyant and confident gay guy? A love interest that actually sits the nerdy guy down to tell him she’s no fantasy? A dream girl that dies halfway through the novel, causing the story to turn on its heels? All of these characters exist in his books. Even though I don’t read them anymore, I can still appreciate his intentions. At least I can recall his characters more than the cut-and-paste caricatures I read all throughout middle school.
At the end of the day, some things should be required from a book’s characters, or at least the protagonist. These include a personality (ha), agency (i.e. the ability to make decisions and be active in the plot), motivation, fear, internal/external conflict, relationships with others, connections to the audience (how #relatable they are), complexity, strengths, flaws, a unique and specific voice, physical traits, emotions, secrets, quirks, history, and development. I know that sounds like a lot, but this article breaks them down and explains it all pretty well.
If you want people to believe in your character, make them feel real. Make them breath, cry, sweat, break down, laugh, smile, talk, learn, lose, and walk away. Stakes don’t exist on the same plane as 2-dimensional characters. It doesn’t matter how killer the plot you came up with is; without any personality to grab onto, it will always be distant. Katniss sacrifices herself for her little sister. Tally…can’t figure out if she wants to be pretty. Regardless of plot, who are you rooting for?
When I meet someone, it takes a certain something to make me remember them. I can’t exactly place what. They’re just not boring. Same goes with characters. If you couldn’t tolerate being in a room with them or couldn’t point them out in a lineup, they’re not worth it.
Yes, I know that boring people exist. Not everyone is larger than life. What if you want to write about a mundane character for specific purposes? When your character isn’t a naturally interesting person, you have to juxtapose them with secondary foils, create dynamics between them and their environment, give them a well-written interiority, explore group dynamics, or employ ambiguity.
I think the most interesting tip I found online suggests removing all of the story’s dialogue tags in your mind and then reading it. Can you still tell who’s saying what? If the characters are distinct, you can.
So, the next time you read or write a book, think about a character without their name or plot surrounding them. Picture them sitting down in front of you. Would you want to hold a conversation?