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I am planning a novel and am currently developing the characters. I have written one sentence for each character that defines them, come up with the roles they would play in the story, as well as their backstory. However, I am struggling to create characters that don't seem stereotypical or unoriginal.

I have thought to make them original by giving them certain backgrounds or traits, for example:

  • Drinking addiction
  • Stay-at-home parents
  • Immigrants and their struggles
  • Rich people

And yet this still seems stereotypical to me.

What can I do?

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    I feel like any character that you describe in a single sentence is likely to fall into at least a handful of stereotypes. You can't really express a well developed, fleshed-out character in so little room.
    – Hearth
    Mar 28 at 23:13
  • How could one sentence for each character that defines them, come up with the roles they would play in the story, as well as their backstory be enough? If you must arbitrarily restrict them, why not at least give each a whole paragraph? Mar 31 at 19:30
  • I can't speak for the OP, but I suspect they are using the Snowflake Method (advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method), where much like a fractal snowflake you start with a sentence, turn it into a paragraph, then turn each sentence in that paragraph into its own paragraph, and so on. Apr 11 at 18:28

3 Answers 3

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Realism

A character becomes non-sterotypical if you describe the person in realistic detail. A drinking addiction is a sterotype. But what made the person begin drinking; what ongoing difficulties the drinking helps the person cope with; the struggle against addiction (or the absence of it and extenuation); and so on, that is, the rich inner world and complex behavior of a real person make a character non-sterotypical.

To write non-sterotypical charcters, a writer needs some life experience and some insight into human nature. Many good writers, therefore, aren't recluses but people who have lived a rich life among a wide variety of people. Writers learn to write good characters from life.

In the narrative, characters become non-stereotypical if you don't just tell your readers that "John was rich" or "Sarah is a drug addict" but show them how someone following John and Sarah through their everyday life would experience their being rich or addicted. As Chuck Palahniuk has advised, "unpack" those abstract concepts and show the reader the concrete mental processes (interiority) and behavior (action) they stand for in palpable detail.

Conflict and struggle

A character becomers memorable if it is torn by a great inner conflict and achieves great deeds through a heroic struggle.

Identification and Projection Surface

Characters are also memorable, if they resonate with the reader. So know your target audience – who are they, what aspirations do they have, what problems do they face? – and create a character that they can identify with: Someone who successfully solves the problems the reader doesn't yet know how to overcome and attains the goals that seem out of reach for the reader.

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A stereotypical character has no surprises; just about everything they do and say is consistent with their "type".

This is fine for characters that appear in one scene as supporting characters, you need a clerk at the convenience store for realism, but that can be a stereotypical convenience store clerk.

You need fellow classmates in school, they can be stereotypical for their age and culture.

Characters become memorable by breaking stereotype, not just in some frivolous sense, but in some way that is important to the plot.

Ben is rich. He was born to wealthy parents, raised by them, around other wealthy children. Ben has never stepped foot in a public school. In fact, Ben had very good private tutors growing up, he was home schooled, but Daddy donated a building to Harvard and Ben got in, and graduated.

That is stereotypically rich. So what can we add to make Ben a nonstereotypical rich person?

Well, let's take another look at those private tutors. Suppose that for most of his life, this was just one tutor? And this one tutor was much more of a parent to Ben than his very busy wealthy parents.

Now what could this tutor instill in Ben, over the course of 12 years or so, that would make Ben break the stereotype of "rich kid"?

That could be many things. It would be a little cliché to make him appreciate the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, that's been done.

But how about our tutor is an expert in some field, like math, or chemistry, or astronomy, or Chinese culture, and he fills his lessons with allusions and references to his own favorite field?

So by osmosis, Ben becomes an expert in the same thing, and pursues degrees in the same thing at Harvard? And whatever subject that is, it becomes crucial to the plot.

An alternative rich story: Charlie is rich. Crazy rich. But he was not born rich, in fact Charlie was raised in the lower middle class, did not do great in school, never attended college. Charlie was a stereotypical C student, and got his first job at 18, selling used cars.

And it turned out, Charlie had a skill even he did not know he had. Charlie could sell cars. Used cars. New cars. Expensive cars, with big commissions. And then, it turns out Charlie can sell big machines with even bigger commissions. Turns out, Charlie can sell real estate, whole office buildings. Charlie is a natural salesman.

Charlie is not the stereotypical rich person. He comes out of a lower middle class and a family always strapped for money (but no more, Charlie takes care of his own).

If your character feels stereotypical, delve into that stereotypical background that made him that way, and break something. Figure out the consequences.

Or take your stereotypical character, but take their stereotypical background and change it (like Charlie). Turn it on its head. How did the character become "X" without a background that led directly to "X"? What happened? What's different about this character that allows this?

It takes imagination, but that is what readers are buying from you.

All of my main characters have one extraordinary strength, and one extraordinary weakness. And the plot of the story revolves around their extraordinary weakness, in ways that their strength cannot overcome. Their strength can assist, in many battles, but ultimately the hero must overcome their weakness to succeed, they cannot succeed on their strength alone.

This forces the character to grow. And it makes for a satisfying story, because there are two victories in the end. The real external villain is defeated, but the internal villain (that weakness) is also defeated.

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Use reference

Visual artists know that when they want to make something look realistic, they should study how things look in the real world. Writers can do the same thing.

This saves you from the trap of thinking that non-stereotypical writing requires everything to be novel. To draw a convincing gas station, you should draw a stereotypical one. All gas stations look very similar. Likewise, you can write someone with a drinking problem and give them all the common attributes that someone with a drinking problem has.

Where stereotypes become a problem is when you take the details from other fiction, instead of from real life. If we do that, then the picture we paint becomes a cartoon. To escape from that, you should look at the real world details.

For each of these attributes you list, find a real world source, and mine it. Both for the deeper issues that drive their character, and for the many little details that add texture and realism to your depiction.

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