4 Ways to Take Your Character From Typical to Terrific


Kat… via Compfight

Do you people watch?  I’d venture to say that if you’re a writer, you absolutely do.  Do you ever wonder who people are deep down under their power suits or hospital scrubs or blue jeans?  I’m not asking if you wonder how they look naked.  I’m referring to the people they are beneath the veneer of normalcy.

Decidedly some of us appear more normal than others but who can really say what it means to be normal?  Synonyms for normal include: regular, standard, ordinary, common, and dare I say, boring.  No one wants to be boring, and neither should the characters we write and read about.

Most people are not what they appear because looks are deceptive, incomplete, and totally overrated.  Human beings are dynamic and have incredible depth.  They aren’t cardboard cutouts with gloss and color on one side and plain brown paper on the other.  Neither should our characters be.

These are four ways to bring your characters to life, in full color, on both sides.

1. Odd/interesting professions, hobbies, training, or skill sets

Esmeralda is a mousy forty-three year old graying librarian living in a two bedroom flat with three cats and memories of her dead husband.  She eats tuna casserole for dinner and knits until she falls asleep.  Sheesh!  Esme is boring, isn’t she?  Make Esme terrific by making her the national parkour champion 1998-2002.  Instead of knitting every evening before bed, she tucks her hair into a ball cap and meets the neighborhood kids at the park to teach them how to cat crawl and dash bomb.  Cool.

2. Ethnicities, cultures, and languages

Do you remember the part where I mentioned “cardboard cutouts”?  Good.  Don’t forget it.  We humans are similar in innumerable ways.  We are unique in just as many ways.  I balk at the wafer thin, suctioned and tucked, dyed and fried replicas that Hollywood and societal expectations have made of our actresses.  Lack of cultural diversity is a definite way to ensure that I lose interest in a story.  I know a lot of people who feel the same and this is because “cardboard cutouts” are so normal they’re, well, abnormal.

Nevin is a sixteen year old inner city African American male.  He lives with his mother, grandmother, and three siblings.  He attends high school in a pretty rough neighborhood and his grades are borderline, but his mother and grandmother are insistent that he get an education. His favorite music is rap and…I’ll stop here.

There’s already a ton of interesting potential conflict here, but Nevin is starting to sound like more than a few stories about American teens.  Let’s make Nevin’s story less common by making him the son of Attila Soysal, the famous Turkish author who is rarely home due to his many speaking engagements abroad.  Nevin can speak and write fluent Turkish and is presently penning his first, but extraordinary, epic fantasy novel in Turkish.

It could happen.

3. Strange secret or not so secret preferences or desires

There is nothing unique about enjoying a burger and fries, ice cream, blue jeans, a good book, lots of money, cold water on a hot day…  These are ordinary desires and there’s nothing wrong with them, but why not surprise your reader?

Miriam Mahmoud is a seventy-six year old who immigrated to the states from Egypt in 1969.  Miriam is the mother of five children and grandmother of twelve.  She loves baking and gardening and as a result her kitchen table is always adorned with a plate of sticky honeyed baklava and a vase of hand cut yellow roses.  Yep, that’s pretty standard grandma description there.

Do I hear you snoring?  Hey, wake up!

Let’s make Miriam less standard double time.  Miriam has trouble sleeping some nights.  Once when she was awake at 2 a.m. she turned on the television in the hopes of catching some news about the political situation back home.  Instead of CNN on channel 626, Miriam landed on channel 666 and was mesmerized by what she saw.  Hellrasier.  Pinhead freaked her out something fierce, but she liked it.  She’s been watching horror movies every since.  She hasn’t told her kids.  They might think she’s abnormal.

4. Interesting and revealing tidbits from the past

What did you think of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker?  Not bad, eh?  Despite his awesome portrayal of the villain, one thing didn’t wash for me.  I wanted to know what happened in the past to make The Joker such a sadistic freak.  There was no answer, and that felt wrong.  Little tidbits from the past make our characters understandable.  We don’t need to be able to relate to our characters, or even like them, but we should understand where they’re coming from.

Angelina is a mature and responsible thirty-eight year old wife and mother of two.  Her favorite foods are macaroni and cheese, French vanilla ice cream, and cottage cheese with peaches.  See a trend here?  Despite being an obvious dairyophile, Angelina despises milk.  Her husband buys almond milk thinking that would be a healthy substitute, but Angie doesn’t care.  She won’t drink it.  When Angie’s husband asks why she says, “I know it’s not from an udder, but if the carton says milk and it looks white, I can’t bring myself to partake.”  Weird, right?  Her husband mentions Angie’s phobia one day while talking to her sister and learns the real reason.  Angie hated milk as a kid but her mother, believing milk to be a necessary part of a growing child’s diet, made her drink a huge glass every morning.  Bemoaning the cruelty, Angie would pout and whine for a good hour before realizing her mother wouldn’t give in.  By then the milk was warm.  Ick.  Warm milk made her gag, every single time.  Ah.  Do you understand now?

I’ve only named four, but there are googoloplex ways to make a typical character terrific.  Well, maybe not that many, but you get my point, right?


(Originally guest-posted 05/2012 at http://blog.janicehardy.com/2012/05/guest-author-khaalidah-muhammad-ali.html)

  • storiesbywilliams

    Bookmarking this! I’ve generally been of the opinion that my characters are a bit of the cardboard cutout variety.

    • khaalidah

      I highly doubt that but I am glad to be of help.

  • My favorite is what used to be called the Wrong Man and should now be called the Wrong Person. Give the job to someone unsuitable and make them figure out how to do it anyway.  Hamlet is a perfect revenge tragedy hero — good with a sword, noble birth, kin murdered, messy family connections, vengeance must be taken — except that he’s the Wrong Person … he’s a 30ish perpetual grad student who likes to think and speculate.  I just recently got away with putting a bunch of reality-show celebrity-brats into a Heinlein juvenile ….

    • khaalidah

      I like that!  Awesome idea. This creates tons of conflict which is essential to the telling of the tale.