We all want our characters to be unique. We all want to come up with someone new, someone interesting, someone with a different view on things. We all want our characters to stand out and hook the reader, even more than the plot itself. I mean, yeah, we want our plots to pull the reader in, but the characters are the ones who are going to help lead them there.
This is going to seem like another one of my… weird methods. That’s probably because it is, but just stick with me. As always, it might just work for you, too.
So you’re planning a story. And you don’t really know much about your characters just yet, or at least their personalities and backstories. You need to come up with these things before you start writing, so that you can write for these characters. Believe me, going back and changing the personality of characters is way harder than actually writing the book, so have a grasp on them the first time around.
Of course, the main development and unique characteristics of these characters will come out in later drafts as well, but here’s how to get started.
First, don’t do anything. Run through your day like it was any other. Go through the motions, talk to people, the whole deal. But keep your eyes open, because this is where the ideas are going to spark.
Look at the people around you while you run through your day, the people that you might usually skip over without a second glance. Wait for one to stand out to you, and then you’ve got a start.
Maybe you see an overwhelmed mother trying to control her kids in the grocery store. Maybe you see a teacher who seems to be giving everyone the eternal stink eye. Maybe you see a group of teenagers walking through the mall, but one of them lags behind the others. Who knows what you see. Just wait until something about one of them stands out to you, and then try to make sense of it.
Even people you talk to and know on a day to day basis. Pick one little detail about them, and try to answer one question.
It’s kind of the ultimate question in story writing: Why?
Why does that man in the coffee shop keep glancing down at his watch? Why is it that the girl at the bus stop looks so excited? Why is the woman in the wheel chair so quiet? Why does that little boy have a band-aid on his arm?
And if you know this person more than a stranger you pass on the street, try to explain more detailed things about them.
Why is it that your boss picks out that one person to yell at? Why does your neighbor avoid talking about their smoking habits? Why doesn’t the mailman ever smile back at you?
I know some of these have obvious answers. The key is to not choose the obvious explanation. Why does the divorced man still wear his wedding ring? The initial thought might be that he isn’t over his wife. But that’s the obvious answer. To make a character unique, you need to get that one little unique detail and then start expanding on it. Maybe he doesn’t wear the ring for the obvious reason. Let’s say that he feels guilty because he did something horrible, something worthy of making her leave.
That brings on another wave of questions, more than just why. Why did he do it? What did he do? How did they leave things? How long ago was this? What made him do it? Where did this happen? Where is his ex-wife now? Is he going to do anything about it? When are things going to change for him?
Then you can develop the character. Go crazy. Make up his backstory. Make up what he looks like to fit it. Don’t just make the character exactly like the person you based this off of. Because you aren’t basing it off of them, you are taking a little real-life detail and pulling it into a character. Divorced man still wears his ring. That’s all you take. Not his appearance, not where he is, not what he is doing. That would be just like stealing, and you want this to be original, right?
Don’t make the person into a character. Grow a character from the detail about the person.
Think about it this way: We are antisocial beings. We don’t get much social experience, so we are simply observing and researching how normal people (not crazy writers) may exist in their environment. Research. Observation. Behaviorism. It’s science and psychology.
So you come up with a ton of questions. Then you come up with the answers. Then do it again. And again. And pretty soon you might just find yourself coming up with a unique character. Just remember to cover all of the bases: appearance, personality, social roles, and even background/history. Cover even more than all of that.
Write it all down. Every little detail, even if it never ends up in the story. The better you know this character, the better and easier it is to write for them. Know the time they were born, even if that doesn’t matter. Know their favorite song and movie, even if that doesn’t matter. Know everything, and record it all, so that you won’t ever lose it. So things stay consistent.
Finally, you can use this character as your seed. From the backstory, you probably found that in making this character, you added in a few more that contributed to his story. For example, if we use this guy in our story, then we might decide to develop his wife as a character. Maybe they have a daughter. Develop her as a character.
Go people-watching again (that sounds stalkerish… sorry). Find another person that kind of fits this new-to-develop character’s description. Maybe you see that overwhelmed mom in the store. Maybe she’s the wife. Pick one detail about her, like maybe she’s wearing bright colors. Then start developing the character. Not like the mom you saw, but as a new character with that little detail of bright colors.
Or maybe that excited girl at the bus stop is the daughter. Take the detail of how much make up she is wearing, and use that as your seed.
This all seems really creepy, but it’s completely innocent, I promise. I’m not saying you should go stalk people and learn everything about them. Just one little detail that catches your eye, and then move on. You use that little detail as a seed. And the detail should be obvious, not like their address or their social security number. Please don’t take my advice in that direction.
Disclaimer: I am not telling you to be a stalker. Don’t do that. I do not condone creeper situations that might result from this method of idea forming…
Please don’t make me regret this.
Anyway, here’s today’s challenge for you: Try this out. I’m not saying to go people-watching. I’m saying that in your regular day, you might notice some outstanding detail in a fellow human. That little detail is a seed for a character, and then that character is a seed for a story.
It may take a few characters to get the hang of it, to find one that really sparks your interest. That leads to other characters.
But once you have a little collection, then maybe even introduce a few different characters that wouldn’t normally meet. Form a story. Story forming has it’s own kind of questions too… The what-ifs.
What if the man decides to take off the ring? What if the wife remarries? What if they run into each other while she’s on a date (with another man)? What if their daughter runs away? What if they are forced to work together because of their jobs? What if the man meets someone else? What if one of them hires a PI to check up on the other?
All of these will lead to stories. More and more stories to choose from. Maybe you knew you wanted to write a teenage drama, so you choose characters that have the potential for a story like that. Maybe you wanted to write a crime book, so you choose characters that have that kind of potential. Maybe the man is a detective. Maybe the wife is the suspect. But really, he’s the one that feels guilty, remember?
Who knows. Go crazy. Build a library of characters, good and evil. It’s actually pretty fun to come up with these characters. It’s like the books you read with profilers, who can tell what month you were born in from the hand you write with and what your favorite ice cream flavor is from the way you tuck your hair behind your ear.
Except we aren’t trying to figure it out about real people.
We’re writers. We get to make it all up.
It’s finals and mid-terms week for me. Today I finished a midterm in under ten minutes (it was easy) and so I got to sit there for another hour and fifty minutes. Silent. At my desk. I was bored, and then I just went to sleep.
But tomorrow I’m going to bring my writing notebook, and I’m going to make some characters from details of the people around me. The other people taking their tests. Wish me luck! Tomorrow’s exam is four hours… but in my eyes, that’s at least ten more story ideas.
I really should be editing…
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Thank you for reading, and don’t stop writing!