Saturday, January 21, 2012

Creating a Unique Character

Hi, just a brief post about something that has been on my mind recently, namely how to create a unique character. If you are a writer of fiction you will usually set about writing a short story or novel when you are inspired by a particular idea. Generally this will be a story that you are passionate about, featuring characters and events that you feel will grab the reader's attention and stay with them long after they have finished reading. While the majority of writers may feel this way about their work, how many books of this kind are actually penned? And more to the point, how many unique and memorable characters has literature actually given us?

By my definition, a unique, memorable and original character is one who leaves a lasting impression on the mind. He or she is a character possessing a set of distinct and prominent character traits, who is instantly recognizable from the briefest description. In literature there is an extensive list of these characters, who have become so integrated into our culture that they are even recognisable to those who have not read the original works. Examples include James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Lisbeth Salander and Long John Silver, to name but a few.

Ian Fleming's James Bond
If I removed the text, most of us would still recongise the character.

Compare the fictional characters listed above with those featured in the majority of books, films and TV shows that are produced. Can you even remember the name of the main characters in the last five films you've seen? Is there anything about any of these characters that would make them identifiable and unique in comparison with other characters in similar works?

The chances are there isn't. Personally I read quite a lot of fantasy fiction. In the last ten years I have read hundreds and hundreds of books by a wide variety of authors. However I would be hard pushed to find even ten characters who have made a big impression on me, who really stood out from the page and took on lives of their own. Unfortunately for fantasy fiction, many novels in this genre seem to feature a generic leading man or lady who fits into a somewhat stale and clichéd category.

So what is it that makes a character unique and interesting to the reader? This is a question that all writers should ask themselves when planning their work. All too often we get caught up in the story, and end up focussing on events rather than character development. I find that I tend to have an image of my character in my mind, that in my head he is a very distinct and three dimensional character. However I usually forget to put enough detail on the page to make this clear to my readers. I end up with 'generic young man', in a stressful situation of some kind. Then my character becomes defined by the events around him, or by his role in the story, instead of being recognised as an individual in his own right.

James Bond is not simply a generic spy. He is so well-defined that he is the stereotype that other spies must avoid in order to be unique. We have the tuxedo, the gadgets, the "shaken not stirred" drinks, the codename... the list goes on. Every fictional spy since has had to tread a very fine line - different enough to be distinctive, similar enough to still be recognisable as a spy. Fleming did such a good job on his character that for most of us James Bond is the definitive spy, no matter how far this may be from the actual truth.

Sherlock Holmes...but you already knew that 

Similarly Sherlock Holmes has a number of very defining characteristics. The magnifying glass, the pipe, the refined but condescending manner, the violin, etc. Sherlock Holmes is an original creation, a living character unlike any other in the fiction of the time. In truth, the main draw in Arthur Conan Doyle's novels is Holmes himself. The cases are intruiging and inventive, Watson is an engaging narrator, but it is the fascinating Sherlock Holmes who has stayed in the public consciousness long after his last adventure was penned.

Personally I think that a lot of writers, and particularly fantasy writers, do not spend enough time thinking about their characters. Most of the output in the fantasy genre is 'event-centric', instead of 'character-centric'. While there is nothing wrong with this, I find that for me most of these books are forgettable. The characters are two-dimensional at best. Stuff happens, the story ends, I put the book down and forget about it.

The leading characters in any work of fiction are the vehicles of the story. The reader rides along with them, seeing things from their perspective, hearing their thoughts. However they are so integral to the work that they are often forgotten. They become an empty shell, filled by the reader's own personality as they 'experience' the events of the story.

We already know ourselves. We spend every day living with our own thoughts, experiencing the world from our own perspectives. Literature is at its most powerful when it teaches us to see the world as someone else.


  1. Fellow campaigner returning the visit! I decided to check out a post no one had commented on--I hate having lonely, uncommented posts haha. I'm also following you now. :)

    I agree that--perhaps especially in fantasy--we can forget that our characters are just as important, and, in some ways, more important than our plot. Writing became mor fun and meaningful for me when my main characters became interesting individuals whom I care about. Specifically, I think it's crucial to have an inherent contradiction. (Shakespeare does a phenomenal job with this.)

    1. Thanks Susan, nice to meet you too!

      Your point about having an 'inherent contradiction' is really interesting. Perhaps recognising that most of us are a mass of contradictions is an important step towards creating realistic characters.

      Thanks for the input!