Vaughn Hardacker here: One of the things that will turn me off on a book is Tom Swift style characters, you know the hero who excels at everything they have ever done. You know The Great Leslie Gallant character of the Warner Brothers 1965 movie THE GREAT RACE. The movie is one of my all time favorites and it is great satire. However the characters are all shallow. Tony Curtis as Great Leslie is the protagonist and Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate Leslie’s nemesis and antagonist. Are satirical illustrations of the heroes and villains of silent films. The problem is they are one dimensional (albeit I believe intentionally so).
As writers we must never forget that people are not one or even two dimensional, they are multi-faceted. They have hopes and fears, hates, likes and failures. Yet, when we think
of their personalities, we tend to key on one or two dominant traits. We describe someone we know to another person as, “He’s the pushy one.” Or “She’s so sweet, but a bit ditsy.” It’s what, in our minds, makes these people individuals to us.
So, too, the characters we write are multi-faceted. When we write them as such, they all blend one into another, with no personality distinctions. Their physical attributes are different, but you could probably swap around and notice little difference. The most recent rejection letter says, “Your characters are cookie cutter.” Of course, in your mind, you (as the writer) see all these “people” as distinct.
Remember the way we describe people? Define your characters the same way. Give your hero two or three traits. That’s all. Give him two good and one bad (or two bad and one good, if your character is evil). Lesser characters get fewer traits.
I’m currently working on a novel where my protagonist is moral (good) and long-suffering in patience (good), but when he’s had enough, he’s brutal (bad). My antagonist, by necessity is almost the opposite: arrogant (bad) and insecure (bad), which makes him a bully.
I try to make all of my writing character driven (we sort of have to, after all virtually every plot today is derived from Shakespeare), so even though there’s a “bad guy” in my Bouchard and Houston novels one of my readers’ favorite characters is an anti-hero. Jimmy O could easily be the antagonist. However, as interesting as many of my readers have found him, he’s a supporting character (they get only two traits, in Jimmy O’s case he can be brutal and violent while on the other hand uses that trait to help people less fortunate as he). He is as a member of one of my writing groups said: a gangster with morals.
It’s important to remember that sometimes stories change as we write them. A minor character (Jimmy O) could suddenly become important and move into a supporting character role. If this happens, give that character one more trait. But only one; you don’t want to interfere with the importance of the primary characters.
Likewise, a supporting character may fall back to supporting status. In that case, focus on just one of his chosen traits.
The most important thing to remember is what is your character’s role in the story…does his or her presence move the story forward? If you don’t know that, then your characters will have too many traits and once again, they’ll become cookie cutter people with different roles.