How to Create Original Characters

04:41

Seven basic plots There's a saying I've heard writers throw around, "There are no new plots, just new characters." Some writers even argue that there were never that many plots around to begin with (see Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots). 

I agree with both sentiments, and I think the writer's struggle for an "original" story is both futile and unnecessary. In most cases, the characters are what make a narrative feel new and interesting, not the plot.

However, this brings up another issue: there aren't really any new characters, either. Just like Booker's basic plots (Quest, Comedy, Tragedy, Journey and Return, ect.) there are also basic character archetypes (hero, villain, wise-man, mother figure, ect), and they've all been run through the fiction grinder time and time again.





How do you make an old archetype seem fresh? Details. Ever since The Odyssey, people have been telling stories where the hero has a tragic flaw (Macbeth, Jay Gatsby, Don Draper). These characters are still compelling because they are richly drawn— they're given their own quirks, tics, and unique experiences. Without these details, the worn-out and tired nature of this archetype crawls into view.

I feel like this is a subjective topic, though. Different people connect with different parts of stories. For example, I thought Avatar was flat-out boring because the characters were about as unoriginal as humanly possible, and I couldn't get past that. Yet, loads of people didn't care because the world James Cameron created was compelling to them. 

So, which part of a story do you connect with the most? Plot, setting, character, theme, premise? Some other part I didn't mention. It's temping to say a mix of everything, but see if you can nail down a #1. Mine's character, all the way.

—Brian

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8 comments

  1. I look in the first chapter of practically any book for something that gives me a return on my time - be it an emotion, an idea, a laugh, or even a bit of information I can share later. In other words - that which I didn’t know, or haven’t spent much time thinking about. You might think this means, I want an early 'hook' that grabs my attention. No. It could be something as odd as the main character calling baby kittens, 'cat seeds' - I would find that interesting, and no doubt, use it in a sentence later. Quite often I’m captured by the narration instead of the characters or the plot either one. Especially if the writer just happens to take on a voice that seems in contrast to the story being told. I’m not sure my reading taste falls under any of the mentioned categories. If I gave it a name, myself, I’d call it the 'take-away', I want something in return for the time I just spent reading… even if it’s just a smile or a new concept I can ponder while folding the laundry.

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  2. It's an interesting question. Oddly enough, I have often caught myself getting frustrated because there is truly "nothing new under the sun." Having said that, it depends entirely on the author and the story.
    For me, I think it is voice or narrative. How poetic is the author? I mention this, because Patricia McKillip is one of my absolutely favorite authors. Yes her stories are intriguing, and her characters interesting, but it is her style, her prose, that appeals to me best. And based on that, I'll judge most authors, and perhaps unfairly, compare them to her.
    But... Barbara Hambly is a favorite of mine, because this woman understands human nature. Her characters are richly drawn, full of human flaws. Furthermore, her villans are often very believable, because the psychology of their makeup is real.
    Still again, I admire Terry Brooks for the imagery and concepts he brings, as well as that little shiver that goes down my spine when I visualize what he is trying to convey. Peter S. Beagle is someone I love to read; his prose is very vivid and beautiful, and he has a knack for creating characters, especially unique characters, that rivet the attention of the reader. For instance, his story The Innkeeper's Song, was nicely done, told from many various viewpoints. However, the most intriguing characters were the fox and the woman who dies and is brought back. (Her voice we hear only once.)
    I could go on, but I believe it is a mix of many different elements. By the way, the above mentioned authors are all writers of fantasy, a genre that lends itself well to innovative and intriguing concepts. And for the most part, especially in the case of Patricia McKillip, none of the stories were really the tired, old swords and socery fantasy that I actually find boring.
    Great article.
    Thanks for the read.
    GA Lanham
    author An Unlikely Place
    www.scalesnailsanddragontales.com

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  3. Actually, what draws me in to a book is the author's personality. Dissecting characters one can get great insight into his/her mind and thought process while making the piece.
    I love reading Stephen King because he is such "sarcastic smart-aleck" and it comes out even in the darkest of his works. Regardless of the subject matter I enjoy his sense of humour and obvious distaste for stupidity.

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  4. I want to say that the plots are the best part for me, but I think a better answer would be the characters or the author's style. I've read some pretty ridiculous stuff that probably didn't actually have a plot, but I still loved it because the characters made me laugh, cry, or think.

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  5. Came across a relevant quote by George Bernard Shaw: "Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first."
    I think that's a good way to put it. Bill Bryson (who's book I took the quote from) goes on to say "What Shakespeare did, of course, was take pedestrian pieces of work and endow them with distinction and, very often, greatness."
    It's this endowment, or ability to endow, I think, that writers are constantly searching for.

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  6. For me plot and characters have a fairly equal standing. The books I read have to have a good (and realistic) plot otherwise I lose interest. I was forced to read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen for an elementary school book report. I hated that book because it had no definite plot that I could get into. The story was basically about a boy who ran away from home and decided to live in the forest/mountain area near his home. Catcher in the Rye also annoyed me because there was no definite plot. It was basically a stream of conscious writing.
    For the characters in the story it really depends on how the author portrays them. I was reading Persuasion by Jane Austen in one of my English classes and I just couldn't get into it because the characters were so repulsive. I didn't even get to the main character because the secondary characters were so repulsive that I felt that the main character would be just as bad (if not worse). Of course when we went over it in class I found that this wasn't true but I still haven't made any attempt to finish the book because I would have to deal with those annoying secondary characters who just ruin the entire experience for me.

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  7. If an emotion is able to be experienced, it has. If it is able to be expressed, it has. Representation of emotion and representation of character are unoriginal because people are unoriginal...but that is what makes us able to empathize and bond with those same characters and their emotions.
    It is neither the characters nor their emotions that set apart good writing. It is how they are embodied and expressed in the narrative.

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  8. All that is very eloquent,but for me,I prefer the interaction between the characters. The dialog. Too MUCH detail and I get bored. I also like female heroines. Ones that work to over come the sterotypical "female" role, and prove that they ARE just as good as men at "whatever" is usually considered a mans realm.

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