Notes & Musings On Writing Cute Characters


"Cute" characters can be a challenge to write effectively. Get something even just slightly wrong, and your character can end up uncanny and creepy rather than endearing. Try to pile on too many "cute" traits or use them in inappropriate scenarios, and the end result might make people want to vomit. So here are some observations on cuteness to maybe give you a little help.



Typically, the follwing traits are associated with cuteness:

Now, while all of these traits are considered "cute," it's of utmost importance to remember that a character need not exhibit all of them to be perceived as cute. For example, DUM-E in the Iron Man films has a sizable fan following who find him to be ridiculously adorable. DUM-E is an arm robot that exhibits none of the physical attributes associated with cuteness. However, he exhibits eagerness to help, and when Tony snaps at him he lowers his arm apparatus in a recognizable facsimile of "sad" body language.

A misconception held by some people I've seen is that adding further "cute" traits or exaggerating pre-existing "cute" traits will unconditionally make the character cuter. However, this is not the case for two reasons:

  1. Cuteness operates on a scale similar to the Uncanny Valley effect. Too much "cuteness," and a dropoff point is reached where the character becomes nauseating or even disturbing instead.
  2. "Cute" traits present in characters/situations where they would be unrealistic tend to break willing suspension of disbelief. For example, a ten-year-old child believing that numbers only go up to one hundred, or a surgeon who is squicked out by bodily fluids.

Character development should never be halted because the author wishes the character to remain "cute." It will backfire. It's better that your character lose some of xir cuteness and remain a believable character than keep the "cuteness" and be completely implausible

Small amounts of "cuteness" can make a large impact on the audience when they're exhibited by a character that doesn't normally behave in a "cute" manner. For example, a war-hardened soldier handing a flower to the crush he never let on about has a much bigger impact than an energetic pink-wearing 13-year-old "kawaiiko" handing a flower to her own crush. In cases where an unlikely-seeming character exhibits small amounts of "cuteness," the "cuteness" must complement, rather than contradict the character's previous characterization. For example, it would contradict previous characterization to show a nurse who was previously established as hating children to suddenly melt at the sight of them, but it would complement a warlord whose attitude toward children was never established previously.

A character does not need to be completely innocent to be perceived as cute. In one roleplay, a character whom all other players adored and thought was the cutest thing ever was not "innocent" by any stretch of the imagination. However, he was kind-hearted and emotionally vulnerable. Furthermore, being an alien to the world he was in, there was much he didn't know - and he became very excited upon learning new things. The effect was adorable.

A character's cuteness should not be treated as an unlimited get-out-of-jail-free card for mistakes and misdeeds, as this is one of the surest ways to make a character that will be loathed. Ask yourself how you would feel and react if the team tag-along were constantly putting you and your friends into danger, made a general nuisance of xirself, or pranked you/your friends in the same way. Would you forgive and let the character off that easily? If not, don't expect the audience to, either. And neither should cuteness be treated as compensation for being a liability in any other way - if your character contributes little more to the plot than getting captured by the villain/villains or continually wrecks plans through xir clumsiness, the audience will grow to resent the character.


Also, check out:

Writing Children Right
Wonder-Baby Syndrome - Or, How To Make Your Audience Hate Your Character's Crotchfruit
Describing Your Character: Tips & Advice
On Writing Likeable & Useful Sidekicks
On Writing Comedy & Comic Relief



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