A Tip for Crafting Compelling Characters

My first novel, Stranded, was very autobiographical. As such, a natural question from my mom, when I shared the first draft of my next book–Stronger than Sin–with her, was, “Who is this about?”

And while the fact of the matter is that none of those characters are me, all of those characters stole from me. You can only write what you know, and as a result, different aspects of me are a part of every character I write. These attributes are often exaggerated in the characters, but they nonetheless find their seeds in my psyche, emotions, and experiences.

This is why last week I glossed over characters in my desire to prove that theme is the most important (and potentially unique) feature in a work of fiction. I argued that nailing down the theme is critical to setting your story apart from the rest in the same genre.

But the truth of the matter is that the same logic that would make theme the most important (and unique) aspect of a story would also make characters critical to setting your story apart from the rest.

There are four points to today’s post. First, the difficulty in making characters unique; second, the simple truth that will set your characters apart from anyone else’s; third, why this might make your characters too similar; and fourth, how to make your characters unique from each other.

People are surprisingly similar

Take the average character. There’s a fifty percent chance that the character is either male or female. There’s not much room for uniqueness there.

Height can vary depending on the character’s age, but if the character is at least an older teenager, there’s typically only a foot to a foot and a half of difference between any two people. There’s not much length for uniqueness there.

And then beyond that, there are only maybe five unique hair colors for any specific character to have–blonde, brunette, black, red, white–and eye color is similar–black, brown, green, hazel, blue. And then you’ve got hairstyle–short, long, wavy, curly, straight, ponytail, man bun, afro, mohawk, pigtails, loose, etc. And eye shape has a handful of options: beady, huge, almond-shaped, round. These features allow for more uniqueness, but they still don’t allow for a character that is truly and completely unique.

Scars and tattoos (or other markings) are as unique as the character’s backstory, but again, there’s a very limited number of places for these things–arms, legs, torso, head, groin.

So how can characters be unique?

You are unique

Your characters can be unique because you are unique. Your story is unique. Your emotions and the reasons for your emotions are unique. Your experiences are unique. No one has lived the life you lived. And even though some of your generic physical features might match someone else’s (eye color, hairstyle, height), your fingerprints are unique, and that is proof that you are unique.

No one has the exact same combination of physical features that you do. So utilize that beautiful reality, and create a character using yourself as the template.

You are only one person

However, this is where we run into problems. You are only one person. So if you put all of yourself into one character, you will end up isolating your character because they won’t be able to meet anyone but clones of themselves.

Unless your character is the sole survivor of an apocalypse, you’ll need more characters than someone based entirely on yourself and all of your attributes.

How can you create multiple unique characters based off yourself?

You are multi-faceted

You can create a whole cast of unique characters based entirely on yourself because you are multi-faceted.

Is there a character trait in you that you wish you could change? Use that to create a villain, or even better, give it to your main character as one of the trials they must overcome in the course of the story.

What is your most unique feature? Something that you have that you’ve rarely found in someone else? Use this to set your main character apart from other main characters in other literature. Or, if you’re really brave, give this trait to a supporting character, maybe your main character’s best friend.

If you have tattoos, make your main character not have tattoos. Or if you don’t have tattoos, give your main character–or a supporting character–a tattoo.

What are some of your favorite things? Disperse these amongst various characters. A book doesn’t have time to focus on all ten of your hobbies, even if you have time for ten different hobbies in real life. Others can be mentioned, but pick one per character to focus on. Maybe the protagonist and the antagonist initially connect because they have a similar interest or hobby, which can somehow be used to push them apart.

The possibilities are endless. You are multi-faceted. Put some of yourself into each of your characters, and see what sort of masterpiece you can create.

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thanks for reading

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