From the books you’ve read, stories you’ve heard, or movies you’ve seen, which characters do you remember the most? Sure, Harry Potter was cool and all with his ‘chosen-one’ storyline and the fate of the world on his shoulders, but I remember most Ron’s worried, quizzical responses, or Hermione’s book-smarts, or Dobby’s propensity for inflicting self-harm. In Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne/Batman kept things going, but what filled theatre seats were Joker’s weird gate, maniacal voice, and the crazy way he’d lick his lips. My point? Great stories have great characters, and great characters are set apart by their peculiarities.
As I’ve written on this blog before, sometimes it’s impossible to come up with ideas that ‘haven’t been done.’ There are millions of stories out there and, chances are, your wonderful, great, revolutionary idea will make someone say, “hey, that’s just like —-!” This shouldn’t be discouraging, but rather motivation to tell the story in a way unique to you and, eventually, unique to the reader as well. Of course, there are many different factors that go into making this happen, but one of the most important is characterization.
From my reading experience, the supporting characters are the ones who make or break a story. While there are obvious exceptions, I find the main character to be well balanced and normal when compared to the personalities he or she meets along their journey. When thinking of some of my favorite books, I find it easiest to describe the personalities of supporting characters whereas the situation and/or plight are more prevalent in shaping the main character. If the supporting characters don’t have things about them that stick out, they quickly fade in my mind.
So how do you make a character unique? Well, first you need a base. What drives this character? Where does he/she come from? What purpose is to be served in the overall arc of the story? These don’t all need to be defined from the beginning. As you may recall, I’m a proponent of letting these things flow naturally rather than planning before hand, but either way, these types of questions should constantly be in the forefront of your mind.
If you find yourself having trouble forming your character and making them seem alive, writing exercises can help. By this I mean just taking one character and putting him or her through different scenarios to get a feel for reactions and approaches to different things. Think of J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle Earth. The man wrote tons of history on his made-up land and even crafted its own language. When Lord of the Rings finally came along, all the history wasn’t utilized, but his knowledge of said history allowed him to put together scenarios and settings that felt real. So you may write a scene where your character is a hostage during a bank robbery and although that may never happen in the main story your character is to exist within, knowing how they react to such a pressured situation can create insight on how they may act in other, more relevant life occurrences.
Now that we’ve tackled broad personality categorization, let’s talk about the minute details. What does your character do when he or she is nervous? Bite his fingernails? Speak loudly? Drink? Pull out a gun and threaten people? What are certain routines that your character has? What makes them umcomfortable? What makes them creepy? Downright weird? Establishing these small things can open doors for some cool and interesting back-stories. And the best thing about it? If you discover at your story’s halfway point that your character only eats red foods, you can still come back later in the editing stage and sprinkle bits of a back-story through the first half.
In one of my stories, the main character is afraid of the dark. I introduced this characteristic early on because I knew it would be interesting in the given setting (a broke down metro-train in a dark tunnel). Later, I developed the back-story as something involving his father. As it grew, soon I had a clear image of his drunken father, equipped with night-vision goggles, beating him as a child in a pitch-black cellar. This led to further revelations about his relationship with his father and insight into the relationship with his own son. All from one simple characteristic.
Weird is always more interesting than normal. I’m a weird dude—in general and in life—and I hear that I’m interesting about just as much. With your characters, think about what makes them stand out. What about how they respond to things can make your reader raise an eyebrow, remember them, and, most importantly, in the end think that it ultimately makes sense? Get to know your characters, in all their quirky greatness, and your audience will appreciate it.