'Cheers' fans—anyone with me?
There's a reason 'Cheers' was so successful—the characters. I can say Sam Malone and we all get the same ladies' man, misogynistic, former alcoholic barkeep running through our head. Heck, all I had to do was bring up Norm and everyone got it, right? They have sticking power because, like most really good characters, they're caricatures, just a little shy of reality. That doesn't mean they're unsympathetic—who here doesn't feel for Carla, somewhere deep down inside of you?—but they're not real people. That's what makes the most recognizable, beloved characters, and there are some real masters out there—Mervyn Peakes comes to mind, for me, as well as Robert Rodriguez and Tetsuya Nomura.
How does it work? I have an exercise (I know, I know—I always have an exercise. Sue me.) to help out with that. We all have at least one character sitting in our brains fully formed, right? Get them clear in your head right now, and then grab your thesaurus. Yes, I said the 'T' word. That little book you've been told to keep shelved for so long is officially allowed out of its cage.
I want you to make a list of, say, three to five words that you would use in a brief description of this character—leave some space between them, though, enough to jot down some words. Now take your first word and—no, don't touch the thesaurus yet!—think about it. How many connected words can you think of that bring the right effect to your character? If you wrote angular, maybe you're thinking sharp or pointed or spiny or carved or harsh—anything you can come up with for that single descriptor on your own.
Once you've done that for all of them, crack the thesaurus and go to what you think the best word is on each aspect's list. It may be the original one, or it may not. What matters is that it speaks to you. Put that on another list and look it up in the thesaurus and list your favorites of those words. That's not to say you'll be using them as descriptors in your work, but you now have a different view of this character, a different, perhaps deeper understanding of them physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Now, you could do it for all of your characters—it sounds like a good bit of fun—but eventually you won't have to. Eventually it will internalize and you'll start pulling things together naturally—and that's when your writing really takes off, in my opinion. When you create these skewed characters, it makes your work look better. It sounds crazy but, in practice, it works. Looks at Miranda Priestly from 'The Devil Wears Prada.' No one is actually like that. Look at Irma Prunesquallor from 'Titus Groan.' No one actually looks like that. El Mariachi from 'Desperado', 'El Mariachi' and 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico', Rorschach from 'Watchmen', Bellatrix Lestrange from 'Harry Potter'—they're not realistic. Everyone says they want realism in their fiction, but they want a semblance of realism, in reality (really).
It might sound crazy, but what's the harm in trying?
Trying to figure out how to make people yell my name when I enter the room,