A Simple Way to Make Characters Pop

A Simple Trick to Make Your Characters Pop

This week’s video provides an easy way to bring instant added interest to any character.

Video Transcript:

As much as we may love our own characters, there’s never any guarantee that readers will love them just as much. Think about it. There are so many awesome characters, in both film and literature, clamoring for people’s attention and affection. How do you make yours rise above the pack into memorability? This,of course, is a question with many answers. Creating magnificent characters will be a lifelong pursuit for most of us. But today I’m going to tell you a simple trick for making your characters pop.

All you gotta do is add a contrasting detail or two to your character. What I’m talking about is totally a surface thing. It’s not about creating deep inner conflict or cognitive dissonance within the character—although that’s fine too. What this is about is finding a simple, but dramatic detail that raises your character above the possibility of his becoming a black-and-white cliché. It’s all as simple as giving your character one trait that, on the surface, doesn’t seem to jive with who he really is.

Maybe the serial killer decorates her house with pink flowers and hearts. A lonely assassin might lovingly care for his Chinese evergreen. Or your grease-under-her-fingernails female mechanic could really be a girly-girl at heart, instead of a tomboy.

These are all tiny little touches that raise these characters out of their stereotypes and into memorability.

More than that, these characters suddenly become much “muchier” by giving their authors so many more angles to play around with. These contrasts need to arise organically from plausible character motivations. You can’t just slap a punk hairdo on a mild-mannered farm girl without some kind of explanation. But don’t be afraid to have fun with this. The possibilities are endless—and so is the potential for delighting readers.

Tell me your opinion: What unexpected trait does your character display?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This reminds me of the characters Joss Whedon created for Firefly. The first one that came to mind was Kaylee the engineer. Super smart when it came to machinery, tough as nails and yet addicted to frilly, pretty things and shy around the doctor. The captain, Mal Reynolds, is tough and smart downright insulting to the companion but is nursing a secret affection for her.

  2. This reminds me of the characters Joss Whedon created for Firefly. The first one that came to mind was Kaylee the engineer. Super smart when it came to machinery, tough as nails and yet addicted to frilly, pretty things and shy around the doctor. The captain, Mal Reynolds, is tough and smart downright insulting to the companion but is nursing a secret affection for her.

  3. As a matter of fact, Kaylee was who I had in mind when I was talking about the mechanic. Great characters all the way around.

  4. As a matter of fact, Kaylee was who I had in mind when I was talking about the mechanic. Great characters all the way around.

  5. Thank you so much for this great writing tip! A superior example of this instantly came to me. In The Professional, the killer who kills without emotion slowly discovers his abilities to live, to feel, and to love a twelve-year old New York girl. As he protects her, their love for each other grows and they two become a family.

  6. Thank you so much for this great writing tip! A superior example of this instantly came to me. In The Professional, the killer who kills without emotion slowly discovers his abilities to live, to feel, and to love a twelve-year old New York girl. As he protects her, their love for each other grows and they two become a family.

  7. Hah! You guys are good. I had that story in mind when I was talking about the lonely assassin. Now who can guess who was the basis for the serial killer who decorates with hearts and flowers? 😉

  8. I’d never thought of this. What a simple, yet fantastic, tip. And thank you, Steve, for pointing out Firefly. I love that series and you’re right, it’s a great example.

  9. Sometimes it’s the simple approaches that render the biggest results. I’m currently reading a transcript of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan’s brainstorming sessions for Raiders of the Lost Ark. One thing that jumped out at me was Lucas’s insistence that they not load down their character with too many characteristics. Spielberg originally wanted to make Indy a gambler and a mercenary, among other things, but Lucas rightly pointed at the the audience would identify better with a character who had fewer, but more salient, traits.

  10. I have a character in the novel I’m writing now named Nelly Sorenson.

    Nelly loves fashion and dresses fashionably when permitted. She also hates fatty foods and sweets, but not because she’s worried about gaining unwanted pounds. She simply hates them.

    Her contrasting trait is that she loves shooting handguns at a gun range. She can shoot a revolver very well because her late boyfriend taught her over a summer.

    Would that be a contrasting trait? A kind of “girly” gal who can shoot a big gun?

  11. Great, y’all come up with eloquent examples, but my brain goes straight to Dr. Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb. When I’m telling my 7th graders to avoid creating one-dimensional “cliché” characters in their writing–like the Big Bad Wolf–I always use Dr. D. as an example. He’s the antagonist, yet he has so many adorable little mannerisms (like the fact that he likes Christmas) that you can’t help but to love him.

    Great post–what an easy-to-apply trick!

  12. @Josue: Definitely. It’s a great contrasting trait, since the last thing to come to mind when we think of most stylish women is an interest in weapons. Of course, you’ll want both traits to either matter to the plot or be informative of personality traits that will matter to the plot.

    @Jodi: Have to admit I’ve never watched Phineas and Ferb, but an “adorable” antagonist sounds like just the ticket.

  13. My character (1) is a boy band bad boy who somehow falls for the girl next door instead of on of the sexier adoring fans he has at his disposal. (2) An honor driven pre-civil war gentleman that longs to keep the woman he loves so safe that he falls into the trap of another woman . . . guess who wins him in the end:P! (3) An unwilling, Christian Vampire:> (4) Soooooo many more:) http://amzn.to/11N67Z4 ENJOY!

  14. . . . SORRY! I really need to learn to edit my blogs as much as I do my books:)

  15. @Katrina: Sounds like you’ve got this thing nailed! Particularly intrigued by the Christian vampire idea – lots of thematic possibilities there.

  16. Hi K.M.

    Another interesting post. I’ll have to give some thought to this matter. Would you say mastering this technique is the same for third person style as it is for first person? I write in first person and I’m currently thinking this might be an easier thing to do if I was writing in third. I’m not saying it’s impossible as I would give certain traits to my main character but how would I do the same for the rest of my characters? Any advice will be much appreciated.

  17. I wouldn’t say it’s any different no matter what person you’re writing in. This technique comes down to character development, much more than voice – although voice can certainly play a part.

  18. Sometimes I worry that too many contrasting details in my characters might be perceived as inconsistency instead of complexity (the good kind).

    This is OK with POV characters, where the contrasting details can be explained as you’re in their heads and can see their motives and personalities a bit better. But for minor characters, I’m unsure how to pull it off. Thoughts?

    • I think the caution here is to be found in the words “too many.” Minor characters probably only need one set of contrasting traits. But you’re also right that they absolutely have make sense. For instance, the example of Kaylee, used above, is a good one because her contrasting tomboyish lifestyle and girlie personality actually make total sense on the screen, without having to be explained in any way.

  19. I have a character who likes to help people but struggles with things like lack of self-confidecnce and not trusting her instincts, and a character that wants to protect her city and the people she loves but kills and tortures criminals though at the same time, she enjoys doing it, whereas my character StarGirl doesn’t agree with the character’s methods and doesn’t lile that this character enjoys inflicting pain on criminals.

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