A skim through TV Tropes (warning – enormous time sink) will show that, whatever you do, you’ll follow some patterns that’ve come before. Conforming to the odd trope is fine, because it’s inevitable and things are often popular for a reason.
But if a character is made of pretty much only tropes and gaffer tape, that’s an issue. A character like this doesn’t stand out, isn’t realistic, and isn’t nearly as fresh as the first few times they were written. They aren’t a person, they’re an archetype.
- The strong female character whose only trait is being a badass. They’re not like the other girls – they have a sword!
- Brooding YA hero.
- The wise old mentor who dies just before the Chosen One can complete their training.
- The Chosen One.
- A cynical hardboiled detective, lighting up a cigarette as they walk out of the morgue into the rain, going into a dark corner of a bar to drink straight bourbon, then musing on the incident (probably a woman’s death) that killed the bright-eyed optimism they’d had when they left the academy.
- The comedy sidekick.
- The ‘end the world for some reason, I guess’ villain.
- Adorkable clumsy cinnamon roll.
- Mary Sue/Gary Stu.
Characters are liable to become shallow archetypes for two reasons – unrealistic features, and a lack of depth.
Make sure the character has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Real people usually aren’t completely useless, nor can they do everything better than people who’ve been at it for far longer than them. Let them slip up, struggle, succeed occasionally – the plot will be more exciting, and the character will be more real.
Here’s Connie J. Jasperson advising how to do a character sketch. This can help flesh out a person’s motives and backstory. Especially with a villain, it’s important to know what they’re actually trying to achieve.
A meaningful motivation comes from a developed personality. Think a bit about their backstory – how have their experiences led them to be the people they are and do the things they do? Not all of this has to be spelled out in the text. But the more you build an understanding of the character which gives each scene they’re in a distinct motivation, the less they’ll slip into the mould of an archetype.
Give characters features that don’t come in the stock package of an archetype. It’s fine to have a female character be a badass, or a detective be cynical, if they also have other sides that make them distinctive.
Brienne of Tarth is a dank fighter, but memorable for her strong code of loyalty. But more than that – she reacts like a human and says ‘fuck loyalty!’ when there are much bigger issues at play, and has some good bits of backstory adding to her character.
Then there are all the little things that add a lot. Coffee, tea, neither? How do they speak: talkative/quiet, assertive/hedging, slang/formal, direct/indirect, what style of humour? Fashion, gestures, habits, hobbies, music/book/TV taste, etc. It’s a small thing whether someone takes off their shoes at the door and lines them up exactly straight, kicks them off in the hall, or tracks mud over the carpet (unless you have to clean up): but that adds to the overall picture of who this person this.
The point is that a realistic character – a distinct individual with comprehensible motives, and a range of traits that make sense given their life – will tend to be more memorable, and make for a better plot, than a simple archetype.