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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

WDC Series: 5 Tips for Avoiding Stereotypes and Cookie-Cutter Characters

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

If you’ve ever read a review that criticized a book for having stereotypical characters or ones that lacked depth, you know just how much it likely affected the reader’s rating and overall enjoyment of it. Flat characters are hard to relate to, and they can take even the most extraordinary plot and transform it into a cure for insomnia. No one wants to read (or write) a book like that, yet there continues to be an influx of published works that receive that very critique. So how can you, as a writer, avoid such a thing?

The short answer is to make your characters unique—a feat that’s far easier said than done. So here are five tips for transforming your cookie-cutter characters into three-dimensional beings that captivate readers and leave them dying to find out what happens next.

  1. Pinpoint each character’s needs, wants, and motivation. Developing a strong character arc is key to giving your readers the dimension they crave. Not only are no two people alike, we’re all complex creatures with many things driving our actions. We succeed, we fail, and we make mistakes along the way. Our encounters with others not only shape our experiences in life, but they often influence the decisions we make. So why should your characters be any different?
  2. Give your characters flaws. Shortcomings make characters incredibly realistic, and even more important, relatable. Everyone has flaws, even the most successful person you’ve ever met. That cute guy you’ve been staring at all week? I guarantee you there’s something annoying about him. And when you look closely enough, he probably doesn’t have perfect skin, perfect abs, or flawless teeth. Maybe he’s even got a scar or two or a crooked nose. Flaws aren’t just skin deep either—even the most popular girl in school has insecurities about herself and will long for something she doesn’t have. By giving your characters faults, you add depth to them and avoid falling into the trap of stereotypes.
  3. Allow your characters to grow and evolve. Even if you have a well-developed character who’s easy to relate to and has adequate flaws, you’ll fall short if you don’t allow them to grow and evolve throughout the story. As I mentioned in the first tip, a character’s environment and interactions with other characters should impact them, even if the effect is subtle. Without that forward movement, characters can grow stale, much like plots do if there isn’t enough conflict or action. After all, it takes both characters and plot to drive a story forward. The best stories have mastered their pacing through a stellar balance of plot and character development.
  4. Blur the line between good and evil. Is your main character an antagonist or a protagonist? Once you have that figured out, make them SWAP SIDES. Then contemplate what would have to happen to pull them back to their original side. Pretty cool, huh? When the line is blurred between black and white, your characters will naturally evolve into complex creatures. Playing both sides of the field can make your character incredibly relatable, even if they’re not necessarily likeable (more on that in an upcoming post in the series), which is incredibly valuable when it comes to fleshing out secondary characters as well.
  5. Develop backstory that only you know as the author. When you have a rich backstory for each character, it’s much easier to see not only what drives them but also how they would react in multiple situations. The more you have established, the easier it is to keep them from falling flat. Character charts and questionnaires are a great place to start, but I’ve found that by focusing on their motivation and wants and needs first, then adding to the list of their traits as I write, I can give them an incredibly realistic depth through the process of writing in layers. But there are many ways of achieving this. If that sort of thing doesn’t float your boat, find another method that does. Also, don’t despair about the details that don’t make the final cut. Think of them as cool behind-the-scenes gems that only you and a select few people are privileged to know. They also make for great extras to include in your author newsletter if you have one!

Recommended read: If your characters just aren’t cooperating for you, check out K.M. Weiland’s book Creating Character Arcs for further ideas on how to develop amazing characters. It’s an excellent book well worth the read.