Everyone claims to like deep, nuanced characters. People who feel real and rich and alive. There’s only one problem. They’re wrong.
If you think of your favorite characters–frankly, any characters you can remember off the top of your head–you’ll think of broad, two-dimensional, larger than life heroes and villains and grotesques. Darth Vader. Tarzan.
Wily E. Coyote.
Narrow characters–those deeply imagined, palpably real people we’re all supposed to enjoy more–are native to the story they inhabit. They can’t exist outside of their setting, their plots, their themes. Memorable characters are the ones who could exist in any number of stories, who can plug themselves into multiple settings. They tend to be action-oriented and aspirational and to have recognizable costumes or tattoos or catchphrases. They stick with you because they have the quality of memes and archetypes. Nuance is the enemy of these characters. What they have instead is rules.
Wily E. Coyote is one of the best examples of this. His rules are never broken–he will always run afoul of his own machinations, he will always recognize when he’s about to suffer the consequences of his actions, he will never catch the Road Runner. If he did, the viewer would be deeply confused.
Rules are comforting to an audience subjected to a surreal world. They give us a framework to know which way to look when everything explodes. People love characters with rules.
Characters like this break many of the guidelines we’re taught in creative writing classes. But they work surprisingly well in genre fiction and they can create memorable stories just about anywhere. Next time you start creating a character and find yourself wondering where their grandmother worked during the war (information which will never appear in your finished story) think instead about creating rules for your character first. You may find that the character starts writing themselves.