Guest Posting today is Jennifer Slattery
Every first draft I write seems to be crammed with cliché characters. The Sunday school teacher with silver hair pulled back in a bun. The buff and burly loan shark. The alcoholic husband who burps and slurps and does all sorts of other crude things unfit to share in a blog post.
With four novels in print and two manuscripts in waiting, I’ve learned how to create strong yet unique characters—in drafts two through eight. This includes allowing ugly into the first draft, swapping the expected for the unexpected, and delving deeper into the human psyche.
Regardless of how many classes I take (and teach!) on characterization, I’ve come to realize my first drafts will always be insanely ugly. They’ll be filled with cliché, cardboard characters that need major remaking in order to come alive. But that’s okay, because every novel has an ugly phase and draft one is not the time to follow rules. Rather, that’s when I let my muse run free, sharing all her strong, bottled up emotions about that jerk-of-an-ex-boyfriend in that one character. Then, once her creative-writing therapy is through, I can go back and soften the extremes that come out as clichéd.
The trick is recognizing my persistent weakness. This is where my critique partners come in. I’m a critique-partner addict who sifts every story I write through a minimum of three critique partners and numerous beta readers. We all have faulty, stereotypical thinking, and that stereotyped thinking always finds its way into our novels. But we, the writer, are rarely aware of this. That’s why we need others, preferably from varied walks of life, to bring their perspectives to our story.
Once I become aware of which characters are clichéd and why, I need to go back and swap out expected characteristics with the unexpected. In my latest novel, I shortened my originally buff loan shark and gave him a bald head and paunch belly. In the story I just finished writing, I gave my angry, opinionated activist a goofy and compassionate side. A computer geek could have a surfer boy appearance. It’s all about contradicting expectations and adding color to your characters.
Finally, I take a deeper look at each of my characters, asking myself what I admire and dislike about them, what they fear and are passionate about, and what their deepest insecurities are. For my main characters, I often have to include more faults whereas my antagonists tend to need more admirable qualities. Both types of characters need revealed vulnerabilities and times when their behaviors contradict what they claim to believe.
What about you? Have you ever been told your characters came off as cliché, too “righteous” or maybe too much of a victim? Whenever a critique partner says a character is “too” anything, chances are you’ve given them clichéd traits.
Do you have any other tips to share? Share them, along with your experiences and examples, in the comments below.
About Jennifer Slattery
Jennifer Slattery writes soul-stirring fiction for New Hope Publishers, Christian living articles for Crosswalk.com, and devotions for Internet Café Devotions, the group blog, Faith-filled Friends, and her personal blog. She also does content editing for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas’ Firefly imprint, and loves working with authors who are serious about pursuing their calling. When not writing, reading, or editing, Jennifer loves going on mall dates with her adult daughter and coffee dates with her hilariously fun husband.
About Jennifer’s upcoming book Breaking Free
Women’s ministry leader and Seattle housewife, Alice Goddard, and her successful graphic-designer husband appear to have it all together. Until their credit and debit cards are denied, launching Alice into an investigation that only leads to the discovery of secrets. Meanwhile, her husband is trapped in a downward spiral of lies, shame, and self-destruction. Can they break free from their deception and turn to the only One who can save them? And will it be in time to save their marriage?
Read a free, 33-page excerpt here