Remember when Disney princesses set the highest of standards for little girls everywhere? I honestly didn’t mind Aurora, for instance, when I was little, but it bothered me getting older when my voice deepened in pitch rather than raised and became a bird and woodland creature lull. How was her skin so perfect for a young woman raised in the wood? How was her hair so clean, wavy, and not oily like mine? And sorry, but no, her face could not possibly be that pretty naturally. Perhaps it was from being blessed by fairies at birth, but Aurora’s perfection bothers me greatly. If she were a book character, she’d be horribly flat, one-dimensional, and boring.
DO NOT DO THIS TO YOUR BOOK CHARACTERS. IF YOU DO, MAKE SURE IT’S FOR IRONY SAKE AND NOT BECAUSE YOU JUST WANT A PERFECT CHARACTER.
I’m not saying your characters can’t have more good qualities than bad, but think about it: If you take Aurora out of her movie, you still have the most active characters doing all of the work (Maleficent, Prince Phillip, the three fairies, even Phillip’s horse provides more work). If your character’s qualities can be taken away and nothing changes, you may need to up their skills, personality, or traits. Turn the dial, make them noteworthy, allow them to stand out. Otherwise, the character can be totally unrelateable and plastic to the head, too artificial to enjoy. Like yes, Aurora is beautiful and enchanting; she shows sweetness and kindness but her traits pretty much end right there.
There is more to characters than their looks. They need a bit more. Don’t be like Swan Princess‘ Derek, who made the mistake of wanting to marry Odette only because of her beauty.
One of the lessons we learn over life is that there is more gray area in the world than black and white. No one is solely bad nor are they solely good; everyone has good traits and bad. We can be kind but we also may be overly naive and gullible. We can have an easily triggered temper but can be quick to acknowledge when we’ve done wrong or made a mistake and take responsibility. These are the qualities that may not seem like they could be paired together but people and characters can be surprising. We can be let down by them but surprised, too.
The small things, too, can help make a character realistic; what do they carry in their pockets, for instance? Throughout high school, I always carried a tube of green apple flavored chapstick in my pocket (often forgetting and finding it ruined in the washing machine). Does your protagonist suffer from chapped lips? If not, do they carry a heavy amount of pens in their bag, just in case they lose one or because they’re always losing one? Do they shed strands of hair like a cat, making them a frustrating roommate? What are their healthy habits? Their unhealthy ones? No matter which one, too, why are they like that?
These are some small things I feel are just as important to question about your character rather than the routine ideas, such as their religion, sexual orientation, family member status, relationship status, etc (not that these are unimportant but because we could use the smaller examples to really make them unique and stand out). Take different qualities from real people you know and translate them into fiction. Make them real, make them contradictory (example of this: a character who runs marathons, blogs about eating healthily, yet will drink themselves sick every weekend while alone or dips tobacco).
No matter what you make your characters, make them yours yet undeniably their own person. We need depth, not shallow personalities the reader can barely wade through. Give them flaws and frustrations; if you can’t make yourself put too many undesirable qualities in a character (we do need the reader to like them and this balance is fragile) then at least give them problems and situations that make their life flawed and frustrating. After all, when, in any part of our life, have we not undergone some worrisome crisis? I can’t remember not having issues of some degree since before elementary school.
Your character should feel real enough to you. Do your readers a favor and let them see them for how you do. You are the only one who can bring them to life. Your writing ink is their blood, your sentences their bone structure, and your descriptions are their breath and soul. Don’t hold back; sketch characters out in your plotting to help! Work with them and they will do you a great service for your writing.
Keep writing, my friends.
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