So how can we write characters that are unique, 3-d, and not cliche?
In this case I think the old adage, "write what you know" is very pertinent. Look around you: what intrigues you about people in your life? Start with your own family: look at your husband, your children. How are they unique? What are their quirks, their strengths, their weaknesses, their flaws? (I know, usually we shouldn't focus on the flaws of those we love, but this is for the sake of art.)
One person in my life who is an inspiration to me in the character department is my oldest daughter: she is a total conundrum of a human being, and I have yet to figure her out. She is layered and anything but ordinary. At the beginning of the year her teacher handed out a questionnaire for parents to fill out about their kids, and one of the questions was, "What are 3 words that best describe your child?" As a writer, who is so conscious of words and their power, this was a weighty question. Just 3 words? I could use about a hundred, but these are the 3 I chose:
They might seem like odd words to describe a 9-year-old, but they fit her perfectly. Let me tell you about this girl.
I first started getting to know A when I was pregnant with her. She would get into the most uncomfortable positions, and when I would try to move her manually, she would just push harder. That was when I knew I was in some trouble.
Here she is giving me The Look. She was only 2 at the time, but believe me, it was not the first nor the last time she gave me this look. She is stubborn with a capital S. I thought I had discipline and consequences down with my son, but she laughed in the face of all my consequences. She would yell, "FINE! I WANT to go in TIME-OUT! I LOVE time-OUT!"
Her determination and fearlessness began to really show was when she was 2. I remember one time we were playing at the park. There were some boys sitting in front of the top of the slide, not letting kids go down. Her big brother, who was 4, cried and ran away. A pushed them out of the way and laughed and went down the slide.
As she grew, I started to notice that she also really liked to get dirty. I wish I could find the photo of her where she has mud in her mouth- yes, IN her mouth. She has never been afraid of gunk and guts and loves to play in the dirt.
This is her with her shrimp, playing with its tendrils, at a chinese restaurant. She said, "He's so cute! I think he likes me!" and then she ate him. She loves shellfish and sushi and spicy food.
But before you decide you know her, that she is a tomboy, just hang on, 'cause she's not.
She loves dressing up, getting her hair done, BEGS me to wear makeup, and takes FOREVER to get ready in the morning (because the JEWELRY and the SHOES!) She has wonderful fashion sense, too. But she hates jeans. She will ONLY wear leggings. Black ones. That's it. Each year I just buy her 5 pairs and call it good.
I love this photo of A because this was when she was in 2nd grade- 8 years old- and she performed in the school talent show. She did a choreographed dance on stage, all by herself, and I was blown away, because there is NO WAY I would ever have had the guts to do something like that when I was her age. She LOVES being in the spotlight.
Eventually she quit dance because the repetition drove her crazy, and she wanted more of a physical challenge. So we moved on to gymnastics. Not as much of a stage/spotlight scene there, but I love when her coach gives her something to work on- that look of fierce determination on her face when she is out to conquer a skill- and then the satisfaction when she does (because she always does). One week we saw the older gymnasts working on some skills for competition and after class I said, "What did you think of the older girls?" A said, "They were amazing! I could never do that!" Then she got quiet and a few minutes later she said, "Mom, what do I need to do to be on the competition team?" Determination.
A has not had it easy when it comes to school. Her brother flew right into the gifted program because he remembers EVERYTHING with very little effort. For A, school is tougher. She has a hard time remembering facts. But she brings home straight-A's because she fights tooth and nail for them (trust me, I've been in the heat of that battle), and this year they put her in advanced math.
I always say that if I were hanging off the edge of a cliff, A would be the one I'd call. In fact, a few years ago when I impaled myself on a needle in my craft room, I didn't call my older son to come help me, I called A, because I knew she would be calm and do what I needed. She is like iron under pressure.
And she's also kind of goofy.
Another unique thing about this girl that doesn't go along with a lot of the rest of her personality traits but I ADORE about her is her mothering instinct. When she was tiny, even with her stubborn, grouchy, determined self, I remember her coming and putting a blanket over me when I was snoozing on the couch. Just recently I got a monster sinus infection and felt miserable and she said, "Mom, go to bed. I'll take care of the little girls and get them ready for bed." I tried to argue with her, but her stubbornness came out and she won. I went to bed. She got the little girls ready for bed, and when I came downstairs later, I saw she'd even done all the dishes. She took care of me in just the way I needed.
This is another one of my favorite photos of A. I took this after we went to an outdoor movie event at our local fairgrounds. She and I were waiting in line for face painting and she was doing some gymnastics with another girl who happened to be there from her class. Well, A was trying to be kind and play with this girl's little brother (that mothering instinct) and she was holding him and she tripped and fell. Well, she didn't want to let go of the boy for fear he'd get hurt, so she broke his fall and fell right on the side of her face and scraped it all up (the boy was fine). You can see it on the left side. But she still wanted to get her face painted (because she's a princess like that) so she stayed right there in line while I tried to doctor her up- she didn't even cry (that toughness again).
In short, this girl is crazy awesome and I don't get her in the least but I sure do love her, and she is a character in her own right, even at only 9 years old. I would love to make her the heroine of a novel. She's not without her flaws- she has a tendency to be a negative nelly about pretty much everything and she has this weird aversion to anything having to do with teeth (?)- but she is unequivocally herself and that is what I love about her.
This is just one character in my life- one who is determined, dramatic, responsible, stubborn, tough, intelligent, talented, graceful, beautiful, thoughtful, and nurturing. She is one of the most interesting people I know, but certainly not the only interesting one.
What about you? Do you have interesting characters in your life? Think about how you can incorporate some of those unique character traits you see in them into your characters. You might be surprised at how they come to life before your eyes!