Do any of these sound familiar from the novels you've read or the TV shows or films you've seen?
- The cop whose marriage broke up because he could never switch off his work
- The hooker who is only doing that kind of work because she’s a single mother
- The young bully who turns out to be bullied or abused by his father
Probably they do, because they’ve become stereotypes. Stereotypes are based on facts--a lot of police officers’ marriage do break up, a lot of prostitutes do have a child to support, a lot of bullies were themselves bullied. But when we see only these aspects of these characters they feel predictable and not that interesting.
First let’s see how NOT to go beyond the stereotypes, and that’s to go for the exact opposite of what people expect. When you do that you just create new stereotypes: the grandmother who rides a Harley, the boxer who loves poetry, or possibly the earliest version of this, the sad clown.
A more effective method is to make sure you give the characters enough attributes to reveal them as individuals. These don’t have to be exposed through exposition, sometimes you can use the setting, or the character’s appearance, or who he or she hangs out with, to give clues.
For instance, maybe our cop’s marriage did break up because he brought his work home too much. Instead of being a broken man who now drinks too much (more stereotyping) maybe he’s looking for somebody new among the ranks of the female police officers. Or maybe he has a new girlfriend who loves being with a cop (maybe she is just that bit too interested...)
If you have problems doing this, take a minute to consider to consider the complexity of the people around you and use that for inspiration.
(For lots more on creating memorable characters, see my newest book, "Your Creative Writing Masterclass," in which I share the writing advice given by greats like Dickens, Checkhov, Austen and current masters as well. It's published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing and you can get it now from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)