Ten awesome character types I can’t get enough of

Last week, I wrote about ten awful character cliches in fiction – the outdated, the poorly-crafted, and the just-plain-irritating.

This week, I present their antidote. These are the character tropes that I have a real soft spot for, and more than a few have found their way into my own stories.

 

10. The One who Talks Little but Speaks Volumes 

sunny-sunny-baudelaire-28089680-584-406

Sunny Baudelaire (A Series of Unfortunate Events)

Who they are: 

A character who chooses not to talk very often, can only say simple phrases, or speaks only in facial expressions, but whose communications are rich in meaning.

Why I like them: 

Sometimes this character talks, and sometimes they don’t, but the fact that they’re quiet doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. This character is often assumed by others to be simple-minded or not paying attention. In fact, it’s the opposite: he or she is both wise and observant, and it’s only when they choose to speak – or raise a single brow – that we realise they’ve been keeping an eye on everyone. I particularly like the version of this character who, for whatever reason (such as being a robot, parrot, personification of the concept of an echo, etc), can only say a handful of phrases or mimic others’ speech, but does so in a way that makes them as eloquent as any other character.

 

9.The One who Enjoys their Power

Who they are: 

A character who possesses magical powers, extraordinary gadgets or similar astonishing abilities, and has fun with it.

Why I like them: 

This character may fall anywhere on the morality scale, from the most depraved villain to the child with the purest intentions. Whatever their motivation, though, this character is always enjoyable to watch. Grudging acceptance of extraordinary powers seems to be de rigeur in fiction, as if discovering a sword so sharp it can slice through time itself is no more exciting than finding that one’s car insurance payment is due. It’s refreshing to see a character who not only embraces astonishing powers, but readily and joyfully experiments with them. There’s something very real and human about this character – who wouldn’t be excited to find out they could fly, or shoot lightning from their fingers?

This trait can often be a weakness, too. Heroic examples must learn to tame and master their power as a vital part of their development arc, while villainous examples may underestimate their opponents at their peril.

At the other extreme, we have…

 

8. The Unshakeable

vetinari

Lord Vetinari (Discworld series)

Who they are: 

A character who retains their composure, no matter what the situation.

Why I like them: 

This character – usually a supporting player, for good reason – is a pillar of stability and sanity, often to a hilarious degree. The Unshakeable could sip their tea through a town-levelling earthquake, and never display any emotion stronger than mild surprise.  It’s not that this character is apathetic or emotionless; they’re simply good at keeping their cool. One of my favourite examples of the Unshakeable was the female mentor of a young heroine disguised as a boy; when the girl revealed this fact after several months of working together, the Unshakeable simply replied, ‘Really? Are you sure?’

There can be many reasons why the Unshakeable doesn’t let anything get to them. It may be a personal or cultural quirk, but in many cases, he or she has been trained to keep their feelings hidden and their head level. Often, the Unshakeable is a highly intelligent strategist, and maintaining a poker face hides their motives from their opponents. This adds a dimension of mystery to the character that keeps the reader/viewer guessing.

 

7. The Big Protective Lug

Who they are: 

A character who uses their immense physical size and strength to protect their smaller allies. More common in works for children, though not exclusive to them.

Why I like them:

This wall of muscle with a heart of gold always delights me. The Big Protective Lug is always there to fight on behalf of the heroes, carry them off the battlefield or simply to make them feel safe. What’s more, there’s something inherently funny about this character, even with realistic examples (eg, the biggest soldier in the platoon): he’s* always having trouble with public bus seats and small doorways, like a dad fitting into his toddler’s cubby-house. Note that a BPL usually isn’t simply taller than those around him, but remarkably so, and usually designed or described with a larger build (brawny, chubby or a bit of both).

Because his emotional intelligence and physical strength are so great, creators often make intellect this character’s greatest weakness, which opens up comedic possibilities and means that he can’t simply bodyslam his way through every problem that arises. That said, he can be terrifying when muscles are required; anyone who’s not on this character’s side had better watch out.

 

*This character is almost exclusively male, although I’m including a female example in my current novel, The Celestial Kris. At 24 feet tall, and weighing as much as an orca, her size is as much of a hindrance as an advantage.

malo-and-sasuri

And here she is.

 

6. The Kick-Arse Elder

Who they are: 

An old person who is still exceptionally strong, agile or otherwise excellent at what they do.

miyagi

Mr Miyagi (The Karate Kid)

Why I like them: 

You have to hand it to the Kick-Arse Elder. Long beyond the age when it would have been acceptable to retire, this character doesn’t give up. He or she is fighting fit, frequently underestimated by foes, and wise as well. Age is no more than a convenient cover for this character, who has spent a literal lifetime honing their awesome skills. They’re fun to watch, and command a certain respect from the reader/viewer; we can only hope to be as lively and sharp-minded when we’re old.

 

5. The Villainous Charmer (aka, the Magnificent Bastard)

Who they are: 

A villain who – because of their wit, flair and personality – is actually kind of likeable.

Why I like them: 

What makes this character so dangerous is their ability to manipulate those around them (and indeed, the audience). This is a villain who makes evil seductive; who targets the weaknesses of their opponents and sings like a siren to the darkest part of their souls. No matter how horrible their schemes, something about the Villainous Charmer attracts us. It might be their looks and style, their mellifluous voice, their sense of humour, or the cleverness with which they implement their plans – whatever it is, it makes you think twice about barracking against them.

It’s very difficult to write this character well, and female examples are regrettably rare.

 

4. The Siblings who Like Each Other

cutesibs

Katara and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

Who they are: 

Brothers and sisters who show genuine love and support for one another. Bickering and rivalry is occasional, rather than constant, and the relationship is always strong enough to withstand petty disagreements.

Why I like them:

Too frequently, storytellers use sibling rivalry as an easy source of conflict, to the point where it seems as if the characters are fighting all the time. I can’t speak for everybody, but it’s nice to see characters who reflect my own healthy relationship with my siblings, and those of my cousins to theirs.

There’s something warm and sweet about the Siblings who Like Each Other. They’ll take risks, be silly, banter, gossip and commiserate with one another. They’re always a team, no matter whether they’re teen sister-witches who tag dragons for science or a brood of stressed-out Melburnians juggling work, life and love. Fiction needs more of them.

 

3. The Odd Genius

Who they are: 

An exceptionally intelligent character who – due to their immersion in their work, or a failure to properly develop their social skills – is a bit of a weirdo.

Why I like them:

As a wise woman of my acquaintance often says, you can’t be ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. I have great admiration for my fellow nerds, and it’s wonderful to see them represented in fiction, but the truth is that the more intelligent someone is, the more likely they are to be a little… strange. Whether that’s the presence of an actual condition, or whether they’ve simply been reading and working while their peers were learning how to interact, this character just doesn’t get it somehow. I tend to like female examples more, simply because they tend to be done a little differently from one work to the next; perhaps because of the perception that women are inherently more emotional and/or empathetic, they tend not to fall into the same cliches as male Odd Geniuses, and their weirdness manifests in slightly different ways.

Which brings me to my one caveat: this character, when overdone, is annoying in the extreme. Believe it or not, you don’t need to slap a pair of glasses on someone and have them show off their incomprehensibly Brobdingnagian vocabulary in order to convince the hoi-polloi of their astonishing perspicacity. Also, not all smart people work in labs or like to play chess.

 

2. The Fish out of Water

multipass

Leeloo (The Fifth Element)

Who they are: 

A character who spends much of the story in a culture or environment to which they are not accustomed, and must adapt on the fly. Their circumstances are a frequent source of humour and tension throughout the plot.

Why I like them:

The Fish out of Water embodies a couple of the absolute core principles of comedy: reversal of expectations, and dramatic irony. The reversal of expectations lies in the unconventional manner with which the character approaches an object or custom they’ve never encountered before – say, an automatic soap dispenser. The dramatic irony is in the fact that the reader/viewer knows how an automatic soap dispenser works. This means that a Fish out of Water is nearly always a source of comedy, whether we’re positioned to like the character or not.

My favourite version of the Fish out of Water is the one who enters a country/planet/time period/social class where everything is wondrously luxurious compared to their home, because this often delights the character and results in them running around like a little kid, exploring the new world they’ve landed in. It’s hard not to feel affection for a character who goes starry-eyed with wonder upon encountering, say, a modern toaster.

 

Most Fish out of Water overlap with my absolute favourite character trope, which is – drumroll, please…

1. The Earnest Dag

bella

‘Auntie’ Bella (Hunt for the Wilderpeople)

Who they are: 

A good-natured, sincere character who lacks self-consciousness, social skills and/or fashion sense. Despite these facts – or perhaps because of them – he or she is considered affable and amusing. Some characters respect the Earnest Dag for always being themselves, or find them endearing; some consider them embarrassing fools; others may pity, scorn or bully them.

Why I love them: 

The Earnest Dag can take many forms. To my readers from countries other than Australia and New Zealand, it’s hard to explain what constitutes dagginess. A dag is a bit like a dork, but without the connotation of being a loner or a nerd, and with an added dimension of friendliness; a dag can be any age or gender, and follow any pursuit. A dag can be a dad who loves to dance, but doesn’t seem to know that you’re supposed to move your feet. A dag can be a teenage girl who wears her hair in a big boofy cloud just because it’s more comfortable than straightening it, or hops onto the swings in the playground just because it’s fun. A dag can be a woman in her mid-twenties who gasps aloud in delight when she spies a certain bird, and listens to the oldies channel in the car because she likes the sounds of real instruments but finds Triple J impossible to sing along to… just, uh, you know, hypothetically speaking.

Earnest Dags are appealing because of their innocence. Frequently, they’re unaware that they appear embarrassing to others. But they’re also admirable because, even if they know people are laughing at them, they don’t care. They don’t know how to be anyone other than themselves, so they usually don’t try to.

Earnest Dags are kind and non-judgemental. They’re cute and quirky, without having to try. They’re funny, but never in a way that intentionally hurts anybody. The Dag is, essentially, the antithesis of the character types I despise – the Coolguy McSmarmface, the Superfluous Cutie, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Mary Sue – because the author isn’t trying to convince us that they’re cool. The Dag isn’t usually somebody we aspire to be, nor does the author want us to. But they often make you wish you knew them. They have a robust enough sense of self – and sense of humour – to dismiss what the haters think of them, and get on with doing what makes them happy.

And what’s not to love about that?

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