How to Save Your Characters from Being Bland

One of the problems new writers have is that they often related too closely to the main character. In their mind, that main character is really them. Albeit, the character may beprettier, smarter, sassier, etc than the author--a wish fulfillment self, you might say--but still she's still more the author than not.  I think that's something every writer has to get past before they can really build characters who aren't bland, because the one thing these characters tend to share is that they're uber nice and nice tends to be bland.

Hey, we all want to be liked. Well, most of us do. And people like you if you're nice. That's what Mom said, and most of us have internalized the things Mom said. So if we want readers to like our characters, shouldn't they be nice?

The answer is: yes and no.

They can't kick puppies and be liked, but if they're too nice they're just boring.

So what's an author to do?

One answer is to give them some idiosyncrasies. Or what I call personal tics. These can be so many things, that it was easy to come up with a sample list.
  • Fears, such as being afraid of heights or small spaces or public speaking or spider
  • Food issues, such as loving or hating certain foods (in the Ocean's Eleven remakes, notice how Rusty is always eating something)
  • Physical deficiency, such as being tone-deaf or color blind of have allergies (Diana Gabaldon made her hero not only tone deaf but prone to deathly attacks of seasickness that deepened Jamie nicely.)
  • Guilty pleasures, like trashy romance novels
  • Fettishs (Chick lit has so many heroines with shoe fetishes it's become downright clishe)
  • Hobbies, such as knitting or painting or building miniatures
  • Uncommon jobs, (one of my favorite examples is the demolition expert in Victoria Dahl's Lead e On)
  • Miscellaneous stuff, such as being clumsy, a bad/fast driver, or self-conscious (about anything). 

There are so many ways that these personal tics pay off.  One of the big ones I've found is that whatever you decide to build into your character will sink into your subconscious and, later in the story, your subconscious will spit out ways to make this tic advance the story that you'd never have thought of on your own.

For instance, I have a character who's been a supporting character in my books who will in due time get a book of her own. Daisy is a younger sister of several older brothers. None of them will let her borrow their rigs because she has a tendency to back up without looking with predictable results. I added this because her high school flame, who she would very much like to avoid, comes back to the small town she lives in to help his parents who own the local auto body shop. If I hadn't given her this tic, I wouldn't have invented the body shop. Together the two facts give me the opportunity to create some fun scenes that wouldn't exist otherwise, so this little tic of Daisy's will be something that comes up again and again in the plot. And that's how you build story on a tic. Of course, it can't carry the story on it's own, but it adds depth, and it makes Daisy a quality that will make her a unique character, saving her from the dreaded blandness.

Character tics don't have to be reserved for MCs either. A character tic or two from a secondary character can complicate things nicely when the character, who is afraid of heights, says uh-uh, no way am I going out onto the balcony thirty floors up, forcing your main character to do it themselves because the plot demands it.

These tics can also open up opportunities for niche markets the way Christie Ridgeway's Malibu and Ewe series did for her when she set the story in a knitting shop.

So have fun with this. Make a game of it. Be creative. And please, share the tics you've seen (or written) in your favorite characters.


  1. Now I'm going to go back to the Ocean films and check again... and sure enough, there'll be Rusty eating something or another.

    In my genre, the characters certainly can't be nice. I've worked to give them subtle nuances in characterization to lead them where I need them to go.

    1. It's fun when you catch those nuances. I remember the TV show Murphy Brown and how there was always something interesting tacked to the dartboard behind her office door. Once I noticed that it became the highlight of each episode for me. NCIS does something fun things as well. They've never made a big deal of Ducky's name, but then I realized that his full name is Donald Mallard. An obvious (or not) play on "Donald Duck."