A few weeks ago I started a new series on Creating Memorable Characters. In Part One, I talked about giving your character a flaw of some sort to make him or her relatable.
Not only must your character be relatable, he or she must be unique. Just as no two people are exactly alike, no to characters should be exactly alike.
I remember as a young teen getting interested in the Christian romance genre via Grace Livingston Hill. Please understand, I loved GLH, and I am in no way trying to disparage her writing. I think she did wonderful things for the genre and the market in her day. However, her characters were very, very flat. Very two-dimensional and static. And, after awhile reading her books, they all kind of sounded the same. I still have one favorite GLH book (Marcia Schuyler), primarily because it breaks from the typical formula.
GLH Formula: Christian man or woman meets non-Christian man or woman. Usually they are of different social statuses (one rich, one poor). Non-Christian is basically pretty good, was never fulfilled by those “worldly” things to begin with (the women don’t paint their faces or fingernails, the men don’t drink or go out carousing), but have always felt like they’re just “missing something” in their life. Christian and non-Christian fall in love. Christian shows non-Christian that God/Jesus/Bible is what he/she has been missing all along and non-Christian gets saved, their love overcomes their social inequality, they live happily ever after.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this formula, other than the fact that she wrote essentially the same story roughly 100 times. (That’s not an exaggeration—she wrote more than 100 novels over her time.) And even that would be fine if there were some differentiation in the characters themselves. Details are changed—physical attributes, specific job or social status, family connections, etc., but the characters all pretty much felt and acted the same.
So what is it that makes someone unique? What is it that draws them out, sets them apart from the crowd, makes them an individual—makes them themselves?
If you’re watching “Big Bang Theory,” and Sheldon says something and you laugh and say, “That’s classic Sheldon!” what are you referring to? How is it classic himself? What is it that makes it unique to him?
Sitcom characters are easy to analyze because they’re often exaggerated stereotypes. For Sheldon, he’s a highly intelligent nerd who is so wrapped up in science that he’s almost incapable of social interaction, and when he does interact, it’s awkward. So, when he says something totally inappropriate to, say, Penny, it’s funny because it’s accurate, but totally outside of accepted social boundaries, but he’s the only one who doesn’t realize he’s being awkward or insulting.
So, think about that concept, of exaggerating a particular stereotype or mentality or way of doing things, and how that might apply to your character. What makes your character uniquely themselves? What makes a moment “Classic My Character!”?
Is she a Southern lady who only says “Coke” regardless of what type of soft drink she’s ordering? Does she correct anyone who says “pop” or “soda” with a curt “It’s just a Coke. Just say Coke.”? Does she pretend she doesn’t understand when someone asks for something else and refuses to serve them until they ask for “Coke.”
Or perhaps she’s an older woman who thinks tattoos are indicative of criminal behavior, so anyone with a tattoo is instantly put into a box of unsavory characters. No matter how nice or polite or hard working or thoughtful the tattooed person is, she never quite trusts them, because tattoos are things criminals have, not good, upstanding citizens.
Or maybe your character is a younger person who sees all older people as feeble and slow-witted, so every time he’s around a person in their sixties or older, he speaks very slowly and loudly and enunciates every word.
Or perhaps she’s shy, and when she’s in a large crowd she tends to mumble and not be heard, to the point that she lets herself get treated as a doormat and ends up agreeing to things she doesn’t want to agree to and so on.
And this trait can be anything. It can be an attitude, a catchphrase, a hand motion, a personality trait, a physical trait (like a stutter or tic, although I’ll talk more about using physical traits in another segment), clothing style choices, the way she spends money freely and generously on her friends even though she doesn’t have any extra to spare or the way she hoards every penny even though she’s rich, etc. It doesn’t really matter what element you pick out. Just think of something that really is part of your character’s core, really defining who he is, and exaggerate it just enough to make it recognizable.
Of course, there are many things that define each of us, and many things that define our character. Not every trait needs to be exaggerated or brought to the spotlight. But if you can choose one (or maybe a couple for a main character) trait to highlight and make that consistent, then when readers see that motion, that catchphrase, that line of thinking, it will give your character an element of dimension that helps the reader identify him in a crowd, recognize her in a page of dialogue.
What about you? What makes your character unique? How can you draw out that trait to make it “Classic My Character”?