If you've been following along in January's Character Month, thank you for being here! What you should have is the makings of your protagonist by now. You may have already progressed to creating your antagonist or supporting characters as well. If you're knew to this blog, welcome! Whether you have your characters already crafted or not, dive right in and follow along. There's always room to learn something new or refresh on something you already know.
The reality of book writing is that it has all been done before. Not only are there no truly "original" ideas, but they've also all been written multiple times over. While this might be a depressing thought, don't be afraid! There's a reason stories work and why they don't. The trick is to put your personal spin on it.
In a sea of genres it's hard not to feel like your book will get lost amid the reviews, or like it will sink to the bottom of the pile and disappear altogether. The next question in your mind after reading this might be: "Well then how do I make people pay attention to my book as opposed to all the others?" "What sets me apart from my competitors?" This is a very good question, one whose answer begins right now, at the beginning of the creation process. By creating unique characters you give your book a chance to not only weather the storm, but to stand out among others that are virtually the same. You can do this in several ways. Give your characters unusual twists, let them defy reader expectations, avoid cliches and stereotypes, and give them scandalous secrets to overcome.
Give Your Characters Unusual Twists
Giving your characters unusual qualities (or twists, as I like to call them) does two things: 1) it makes them more interesting and 2) it makes them more realistic and therefore more relatable. You may want to take a moment and free write. Just jot down some quirky traits, unusual hobbies, unique experiences that happened in your character's past, and any unusual talents/skills that could fit in with your character. If you're having trouble thinking of things, don't be afraid to consult the almighty Google! Your aim here is to give your characters enough twists to make them stand out, but not too many so that they don't make sense anymore. Be specific here. Ask yourself how other characters perceive the reveal of these unusual traits. A few excellent examples of this technique are: Dexter Morgan, Susie Salmon, Lisbeth Salander, and Forrest Gump.
Dexter Morgan from Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, is unique within his crime genre because he is equal parts hero and killer. Susie Salmon from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is unusual because she is dead and also saved herself with mature revelations far beyond her fourteen year-old comprehension. These characters both make a lasting impact because they are normal enough that they could be your average next door neighbors, but yet strange enough that they catch your attention and keep it despite being outwardly ordinary. It's characters with flaws and quirky traits that readers love most! Go ahead and make your own characters imperfectly perfect too.
Insanity and disabilities make excellent traits for this purpose as well. By opening the door for speculation and consideration, you draw the reader into a new perspective. Both of these types of characters require a lot more resources to keep them out of trouble and can have a major impact on everyone around them. Lisbeth Salander from Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is small, but fierce, cold but sexy. She's also a genius who suffers from a debilitating lack of social skills. She'd be better suited for a villain, and yet she makes a fabulous heroine! Forrest Gump by Winston Groom shows us that while his protagonist, Forrest, is simple and slow-witted, his handsome looks and positive attitude more than make up for it. Both Lisbeth and Forrest overcome their disabilities and even make them work to their advantage, making them characters you want to root for! Aurie from The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss, presents a perspective that takes you down the rabbit hole of madness and into a world that only makes sense to her. The strangeness of her mind makes you want to find a trace of reason within her insanity, while simultaneously keeping you enthralled in the narrative.
Let Them Defy Expectations
What captures your attention and keeps you reading or watching your favorite film? Besides the unique characters it's often because of the unexpected right? We all like to surmise about what will happen next or how the characters will react to their latest challenge, but we like it best when they defy our expectations and keep us constantly guessing. You can use this yearning for the unexpected to hook readers into not only finishing your book, but to keep them coming back for more!
One way to do this is to take your initial character idea and re-imagine it. Push the boundaries of who they are and what they stand for. Exaggerating their motivations leaves a lasting impression on your readers because it can be quite unsettling. Elizabeth Sims's article "Bend It, Amp It, Drive It, Strip It" (BADS) in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by the Editors of Writer's Digest gives a great example of how to do this: "Suppose your main character is an insomniac who needs chocolate to fall asleep. Bend that urge into something that is totally disquieting to anybody but your protagonist. Wouldn't it be more compelling if she has to, say, shoplift an expensive item precisely one hour before bedtime?" (BADS, pg. 13). Here you can definitely see the stakes being heightened to the next level, and what started as a good idea is made all the more compelling and exciting!
Another tip that Sims gives in her article is to give even your minor characters a fierce makeover (BADS pg. 14). While every story has supporting characters, it's important to keep in mind their potential as well as their purpose for helping along the narrative. Few writers use their secondary characters as well as Tennessee Williams does in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Mae and Gooper's children, while merely background material, are thrust into the forefront of the play right from the start. You see them ruin Maggie's dress and hear her refer to them multiple times throughout as "no-neck monsters". You don't even have to meet them to feel the tension and revulsion they bring. They add tension to the main issues of the play without ever being featured in a big way.
Avoid Cliches & Stereotypes
We've all been cautioned away from this before, and there's a reason for it. When you use stereotypes instead of taking the time to develop your characters, you hurt yourself and your readership. Stereotypical characters are often hollow and offensive. They're also boring! As a writer your job is to think outside of the box, not limit yourself by staying within it. While it's okay to use these as starting points, make sure you're adding your own personal flair to make them different. For example, if you're writing a gambler, instead of making it a junkie with a substance abuse problem, maybe try a housewife who's trying desperately to double her earnings so she can finally afford to leave her abusive husband. If you're writing a handsome body builder-type, try giving him nerdy hobbies like chess or maybe he's got a thing for knitting. Poke fun at the stereotype and you make your character all the more interesting to read about. For a real-life example check out the 80's movie The Breakfast Club.
Bringing diversity and multiculturalism into your writing accomplishes the goal of making your writing unique and also fulfills what readers have recently been asking to see more of within literature. Here it's also important to avoid stereotypes and cliches. If you're going to write characters of different races, sexual orientations, religions, abilities, etc do your research! Not only do you need to understand the in's and out's of what you want to write about, you also want to stay true to your character and who they represent. The only way to accurately portray someone who is different from you is to ask them questions about their life and experiences. What challenges do they face? How are they being discriminated against? What issues are important to them? What aspects of every day life are different for them? The answers to all of these questions will help you create a true-to-life reflection of diversity within your work.
Give Them Scandalous Secrets to Overcome
Push the boundaries of your characters by airing out their dirty laundry. All the deep, dark secrets that they're hiding inside makes juicy fodder that your readers will be DYING to learn more about! After all, who doesn't like a little drama? Some of the best ways to do this are by bringing it back to the basics.
Primal urges are the oldest motivators of human behavior. Let your characters think with their lower parts and there's no telling where the steamy narrative will take you. You can find examples of this in the entire genre of romance novels, but one good example is in Gena Showalter's The Darkest Kiss. Anya, Goddess of Anarchy is driven by her obsessional lust for Lucian, a warrior possessed by the demon of death. Another, more complex example would be the love triangle between Scarlett O'Hara, Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. Amidst all her other problems, Scarlett longs for Ashley (who doesn't want to be with her), while Rhett lusts after her. A massive amount of delicious complications and drama ensues.
Be ruthless and expose the inner wounds that your protagonist hides from the world. Let others inflict emotional pain and let your protagonist throw salt in their own wounds. To be human means to suffer, so let the suffering come to the forefront in a dramatic and enlightening way. In Breaking Bad, the tumultuous relationship of Walter White and his wife, Skyler cuts the audience to the core with it's honest portrayal of what a failing marriage and the price of crime looks like.
A blood link is one of the best scandalous secrets there is! Tensions between family members mixed with the secret of a relation no one knew about? Priceless. Explore the inner workings of these dynamic relationships: jealousy, abandonment, anger, worthlessness, selfishness, don't be afraid to explore the dark underbelly of being human. One of the biggest reveals of kinship was when Luke Skywalker found out that Darth Vader was his father in Star Wars. Another example would be Gendry's character from Game of Thrones.
When you're creating your character it's important to think about how you'll make them stand out in a literary market where everything has been done before. Give them unusual twists, let them defy reader expectations, avoid cliches and stereotypes, and give them scandalous secrets to overcome. Add that to your basics and the values and desires you worked on from the last two posts in the series and you should have quite a dynamic character to work with!
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