Characters 101: Everyone's Unique, Right? - article

Every great story needs great characters.

So you have an idea for the greatest story ever told but fall flat in the character department. What are you left with? You’re left with twists and turns that are useless without someone worth caring about to go through them. Take time during your creative process to define your players and the pay off will be the difference between interesting or flat characters.

Step one: Walk the fine line that is cliché.

We’ve all read stories and seen movies inundated with the ditsy cheerleader, macho jock, and lonely nerds. Be careful to avoid the cliché’s. Make your character real and relatable. In your story, the unique quirks you give your characters can set them apart and give them that fresh twist you desire. As an example, Janet Evanovich writes the Stephanie Plum series, which is about a bounty hunter who (among other things) is afraid to use a gun. Now that’s a quirk your readers will remember.

Step two: Move beyond the obvious.

What else do you know about your character? Define her past, her dreams, her reaction to things, her hobbies, or some combination of her strengths and weaknesses.

Step three: Define their personality, look, past, dreams…

You need to create a character profile for each of your major and minor players. Start with their personality. What is it that makes them tick? What events in their past have led them to this point? What are their dreams for the future? Are they strong willed, intelligent, or just lucky? You decide.

Next, ask yourself, what do they look like and what do they wear? Are they fat, disfigured, or other-worldly gorgeous? Classic iconic characters have elements about them that resonate with us forever. Indiana Jones has that hat, Bruce Banner transforms into his green skinned alter ego the Hulk, and Jason’s hockey mask–these are all iconic elements that each character owned and we all remember.

A quick tip: look around your real life. Look at your friends and family members and all their little quirks. Take from that and exaggerate those elements into an interesting combination, such as grandpa’s affinity for fake jewelry paired up with your aunt’s obsession in smoking cigarettes while baking, to create a gaudy mother who’s known for her horrible baking and emphysema.

Step four: Who are we without a name?

Alright, you’ve defined your character’s personality, looked into their past, and planned their future. You’ve even given them a unique look with memorable traits. Now it’s time to name your hero, heroine, or arch nemesis. I suggest you give a few resources a try.

First, fold a piece of blank paper down its long middle. Write male names one side and female names on the other. On the back fill both columns with last names. Now start making up unique combinations that pop when you hear them.

Another cool tool is using a baby name book or website. They’re great because not only can you gain access to thousands of names and variations, but you can also find their specific meanings. This can be very helpful now that you’ve defined your character. You cRegardless of your method, the goal here is to create somebody that you yourself would care about. Good luck and keep it interesting. Note: For more information on character naming, see the articles “Characters 101: What’s in a name?”, parts 1 and 2, here on the Author Learning use those elements to pick a name that stays relatable to them.

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  • Thank you for the article.  Creating fresh characters that aren't cliches is hard work, but definitely worthwhile.  With me, the name usually comes first, and the rest follows.  Keep up the good work!