Avoiding Bland Characters

Ways writers can make their characters feel interesting, unique, and real.

Allister McLeod, Columnist

Characters are arguably the most important part of any piece of fiction. They carry the readers or viewers through a story, provide emotion and conflict, and give the readers or viewers figures to relate to, like, and admire. However, not all characters are loved equally. While many are intentionally unlikeable villains or annoying side characters, others just feel dull. Luckily, bland characters can be avoided when a writer includes a few key aspects.

These aspects can be broken down into different points, according to Hannah Heath. The first points all relate to the conflict characters go through during a story. But before conflict can even be created, a character needs to have a goal that they are working towards. One of the easiest ways writers can make a character more appealing is by giving them a reason that goal matters so much. Writers need to make sure that a character has a reason to fight for their goal, so the audience can understand, sympathize, and empathize with that character. This is most commonly done in a character’s backstory, or something that happens early in the plot, with examples being the death of John Wick’s wife before “John Wick,” or the death of Eren’s mother in the first episode of “Attack on Titan.” However, it can also be done through a character’s beliefs, or a situation they are put in. In “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the protagonist Aang starts out with little motivation to fight the Fire Nation, but his belief in helping people and his duty as the Avatar drives him towards it. While Aang has an impactful backstory, it isn’t his primary motivation, with him instead of being motivated by the current situation. Another example can be found in “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Vento Aureo,” where the protagonist Giorno Giovanna is driven to take down the Italian mafia because of the effects the drug trade has on his community, even though it hasn’t affected him. Though, no matter what the reason is, giving characters real motivation to accomplish their goals can help them feel more unique to the reader.

Characters also need to have something holding them back that makes it difficult for them to accomplish these goals. While this can easily be done with outside obstacles, the hardest obstacles for characters to overcome often come from within themselves. By giving a character fears or flaws that they need to overcome, they feel much more like actual people, and their struggle will stand out to the reader or viewer. Inconsistencies in a character’s personality and beliefs can often contribute to these character flaws, by making them more interesting than a character just having to overcome a single, unchanging issue. Often, characters have to overcome a negative trait that harms them, but their flaws could also tie into their backstory, beliefs, or self image. A character with meaningful conflict and struggle is going to stand out much more than a character that gets everything handed to them, increasing their appeal to the audience.

The next points all relate to how characters interact with other characters in a story. One great way to make characters interesting is to use other characters as foils. These are characters who highlight the traits of another character. Often, the two characters are similar except for a couple of specific traits that are being highlighted, but they can also be complete opposites. When a foil allows certain traits of a character to stand out to a reader or viewer, they are more likely to remember those traits, adding to how unique a character feels, both in and outside the context of its story. Popular examples of character foils are Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, and Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Foils can also show differences in how different characters think, especially in a character’s internal dialogue. Often described as deep perspective, this is when a character’s personality and thoughts mix into the prose or ordinary text, making it more clear that the story is from a character’s point of view. In stories with multiple points of view, deep perspective can be especially useful, since it highlights differences between the way characters think and process information. The thoughts of two characters could describe one setting in two completely different ways, building a deeper connection between the text and the character. An author that does this especially well is Tom Clancy, with examples being books like “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” and “The Sum of All Fears.”

Writers can also make characters more interesting by giving them unique interactions with different characters. In stories that have a group of side characters sticking with the protagonists, those characters are often just friendly with each other, and only have complex relationships with the protagonist. Not only is this unrealistic, since groups of people in real life have many relationships and dynamics, but it can also make scenes between side characters become stale fast. By adding more depth to the relationships of side characters, whether it’s through conflict, inside jokes, or anything else, writers can make multiple characters feel more unique at the same time. With groups of characters often being more iconic than a single character, this aspect can allow a writer to increase how distinct their characters feel.

These techniques can help characters to feel more real and can easily improve the strength of a story. However, the most important aspect for just making characters feel more unique may be the one that is most commonly overlooked. According to Mrs. Katie Kingman, Senior English and Creative Writing teacher at Horizon Honors, developing a unique voice for a character is important for making them feel unique and stand out to the reader. A character’s voice can be shown through both their internal and external dialogue, and is incredibly useful for making them stand out from other characters. When every character in a story talks in similar ways, they can feel much less distinct, and can sometimes even be hard to tell apart. But by including differences in the ways characters think and talk, whether through dialects, words or phrases commonly used, or a character’s tone, writers can make them stand out, both inside and outside of the story they come from. A character with a clear voice has much greater chances of being commonly recognized and noticed.

These aspects all allow for writers to make their characters feel more unique, interesting, and real. Whether a character has a unique goal, backstory, flaw, motive, voice or foil, they will stand out much more than a blank slate, often improving the story a character comes from as a whole. Readers interested in finding more information about any of these aspects can easily find sources elaborating on them online.