A Sure-Fire Shortcut to Create Unique Characters

A Sure-Fire Shortcut to Create Unique Characters

I answer a lot of questions from writers, and if I had a nickel for every email I get asking about how to write unique characters and original plots—well, I’d have a lot of nickels.

The quest for unique characters is one all writers share. And granted, it’s a tricky one, because, as we all know, there’s nothing new under the sun. The fundamental core of a unique character is always going to be his heart: his motivations and his inner conflict, which I’ve talked about in recent posts. But there’s more to it than just that, because a character has to be unique, not just deep down, but on the surface as well.

Little Dorrit Charles DickensFortunately, there’s a relatively easy way to create surface distinctions that can bring your unique characters to life on the page. Consider verbal and physical tics—and for an excellent example look no farther than Charles Dickens, who was a master of characteristics. I just finished his classic Little Dorrit, and it is absolutely replete with vibrant and unique personalities—in large part because Dickens was a genius at giving each character unique mannerisms and voices.

Now, granted, some people might argue Dickens took the principle too far and ended up in the humorous realm of the caricature—and in some stories he did. But what makes his talent for characters so memorable is that the little personal tics he imbues them with are always organic to the person and the plot.

He doesn’t have the cruel and stodgy Mr. Flintwinch walk with a twisted posture just because that’s the first thing that popped to his mind. Flintwinch’s posture is both symbolic and perfectly sensible to his age and occupation.

Jeremiah Flintwinch Alun Armstrong

Same for any other character—from the evil Frenchman Rigaud’s mustache snuffing to the Italian Cavalletto’s expressive hands to the kindly flibbertigibbet Flora Finching’s non-stop prattle.

Flora Finching Little Dorrit

Look for a unique but organic expressions for your characters. Humor aside, subtlety is still going to be the name of the game. But don’t overlook this powerful tool for etching unique characters into your readers’ memories.

Tell me your opinion: How have you given your unique characters unique physical and verbal tics?

A Sure-Fire Shortcut to Create Unique Characters

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I have one character who talks almost incessantly. Sure, he sometimes gives one-line answers, but anywhere he actually imparts information, he usually goes on at least one tangeant. Some characters have verbal ticks, words they repeat a lot – “my dear”, “well”, “um”, “oo”… And I try to have, among the physical ticks that are pretty universal (rubbing your hands over your face, for example) some ticks that are characteristic of that person – one rubs the bridge of her nose, the other the back of his head, another chews on her lip while still another rubs her thumb and forefinger together… I keep track of those on their character sheets.
    Not overusing them is sometimes as hard as thinking them up!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, that’s another thing Dickens was excellent at: using variations *on* his chosen tic for each character. They never grew repetitious; they always evolved with the story.

  2. Love this post! I find myself adding these “surface” character quirks a bit later on in the story (even if that means going to the beginning, once I know characters a bit better), simply because until then I’m so hyper focused on motivation and dialogue and consistency. But these are a really fun way to cement a character’s identity, in my mind, and ensure that they’re quirks with reason, and not just annoying/overdone tics. I have a former dancer as one of my main characters, and her posture/gait/way she carries herself is reflected by this. It also helps, I think, that she’s a bit more formal and guarded in general. I also like giving characters their own frequently used favorite words or expressions (but am careful not to overdo this).

  3. This is interesting because I think (tell me if I’m wrong) that our main characters tend to be versions of ourselves, and of course we’re pretty close to perfectly normal, so all the tics and hunchbacks and dialects are loaded onto lesser characters. It might be interesting to crawl inside the skin of a seriously tic-afflicted person and write from there. The closest I’ve got is creating an old fart who is obsessed with working out so much that his porky skin shows pink through the weave of his well-worn T-shirt. He reckons that he’ll look better on the slab when he dies.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. I do think this trick is easiest with comic characters. But it’s just as useful – if a little trickier – with “normal” folks. We just have to find tics that are expressive without being ridiculous.

  4. As you say, when it comes to names and personal oddities of character, Dickens is THE master. These days, political correctness would shut him down on some of this. Take Mr. Sleary, owner/operator of a run-down traveling circus in Hard Times. He has a pronounced lisp, so words like his own name come out as Thleary.
    In my soon-to-be-released second Brenda Contay suspense novel, a murderer distinguishes himself by being a klutz. At one point, he wants to impress two women who are fishing, by helping them remove a hook from a Pike’s mouth. But when he vaults from his own boat into theirs, he catches his shoelace and falls clumsily. Then he makes a mess of removing the hook, and so forth. But he’s a misogynist and a killer, all of which (I hope) makes for a unique bad guy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Dickens was relentless in his satire–which makes it all the better in most instances, IMO!

  5. Susi Franco says

    In acting, these personalized “tics”, twitches and perhaps oddball mannerisms are called “business”. You quickly learn to develop your own cache of “business” to give life to your roles. ( if you want a call-back, that is. 🙂

    In my book I am giving my MC Lilly the habit of seeing events in her life as potential headlines, as in “Woman Sells Magic Pies And Gets Arrested For Fraud”; she talks to herself out loud about these headlines and how to best avoid them or the mayhem they could wreak in her life if followed through to their logical conclusions. I think that helps illustrate her vulnerability, her intent to do the right thing as well as her deep desire for approval, which underscores her motivation.

    I learn so much from your posts, Miz W. Sometimes I learn I’m barking up the wrong tree, which is very useful to a writer. ( think “life raft”)

    Other times, I see that I am taking the right steps, and that level of reassurance is very precious in an occupation rife with insecurity and rejection. 🙂

    Thank you~

  6. I once heard a video game character designer say how he starts with the costume, and then he knows who the character is. As an artist, that’s something I’ve really connected to with my own characters. I just start drawing until I can see their bodies in a characteristic way—hunched over protecting someone, twisting her body in an effort to shield as much of herself as well from whatever’s coming. Then I get creative with their clothing and how they carry themselves, how their arms hang when their standing, the way they angle their neck… Then comes a lot of daydreaming and staying up all night casting myself as a particular character (while working out how a scene unfolds).

    And even then I don’t know my characters until at least the 2nd draft. Oh well, at least I’m never lonely 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s interesting! I never considered it before, but my initial concept of a character *always* comes complete with a specific costume. I’ll have to pay more attention to that in the future. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Wow, this post has definitely made me rethink how I will be creating my characters in the future. Thank you Charles Dickens! And of course, thank you for sharing this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally recommend reading Dickens. His characterizations are an endless well of inspiration.

  8. Great post. Letting these things evolve organically is effective, and gives us natural elements we can play with as the plot progresses. We can use our characters’ personalities and background to inform our descriptions, even when dealing with very minor characters.

    In my novel, Gift of the Phoenix, one of the main characters, a wizard, is facing a tribunal of sorts. He stands before a panel of high-ranking wizards and witches, who will determine his fate. When it comes time for the voting, I wrote this about one of the members who uses song in his magic:

    “This last member of the Order had been silent through the entire proceeding. His sole contribution to the matter rang through the room like a reverberating gong: ‘Expulsion.’ ”

    This is one of the only times we see this character, but I was still aware of what makes him unique to this group and decided to use it.

  9. I have one character who is long-winded and easily distracted when she talks. Perfect example:

    “Yes, Sia was surprisingly brief.”

    “Hey, I’m not that long-winded—I mean, I can summarise—”

  10. thomas h cullen says

    Appearance is suggestive, absolutely..

    Ever picked up on silk, and its own pattern of suggestiveness? You see a character wearing silk-clothing, and the odds are they’re morally dubious, if not an outright villain.

    Even to just facial appearance, the same rule applies.. from a person’s look of hair, to their general look of face, even just bits as these can suggest whether a character’s set to die or not.

    Appearance is very valid.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. Plus, it’s always great to present appearances that are in first-glance contrast with the character’s personality, but then deepen with layers.

    • Susi Franco says

      Hi Mr. Cullen—I enjoy your posts and look forward to them but I must respectfully disagree with your Silk Factor. When a character wears silk I think of opulence, affluence, possibility of sensuality,and a taste for the finer things in life. I see nothing evil about any of those, much less an indicator of “moral dubiousness” or villainy. But hey, I guess that’s what makes a horse race. 🙂

  11. Mark Williams says

    This should help writers add more characters in a story. Great!

  12. I have a character in the novel I am writing who, from the beginning, only spoke in declarative sentences. I.e. she never asks questions, and it was actually one of my other characters who realized this, not me! Not sure if that makes sense. Anyway, it’s an interesting tic for me to write, as she is a young woman, and when I was her age EVERYTHING that came out of me was in question form. She, however, is preternaturally confident, to the point where she puts all the older people around her on edge. And when she finally does ask a question, it tends to stick out on the page (at least to me) as something worth paying attention to. If not the question itself, but the motivation behind it.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that while I feel somehow I can’t quite take full credit for my character’s tic (as nuts as that sounds) it has served me as a way of ordering or mapping her dialogue, and has made it very easy to bring her character to life in a clear and readable way (she is definitely the favorite of my writing group!).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! It’s subtle (enough that even you missed it!), but in the end it creates a huge atmosphere for exploring the character’s inner self. What made her this way? What insecurities is she covering up with her forcefulness?

  13. Off topic. Do you think that it’s possible that your big novel (100k words or so) Could in fact be a novel and half? I’m halfway into my revisions of the book a in the past, I could spot chapters that were junk and needed ripping out, but now I just dive in and revise the chapter and make it fit by reading the chapters before it and find ways to make it work. In part I’m like: Yay, hea hea – and I’m also: What if this is total cr*p? Does this work? Do I like it too much? Ack. During edits and proof reads I try to cut the count down. I keep reading about how fantasy books shouldn’t go past 90k words >_< It's stressing me out.

    (Apologies for taking forever to reply sometimes I get kind of lost in my own world and forgot about other things besides the book. I check mark the "notify me" option. Those help a little.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Whether or not a long book is really *two* books (or more) has everything to do with structure and nothing to do with word count. If your structure is complete, even at the long word count, then it would ruin the story’s effectiveness as a whole to divide it into parts. If that’s the case, you’ll be better off trimming the fat rather than splitting it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy way to create surface distinctions that can bring your unique characters to life on the page. Consider verbal and physical tics—and for an excellent example look no farther than Charles Dickens, who was a master of characteristics. I just finished his classic Little Dorrit, and it is absolutely replete with vibrant and unique personalities—in large part …read more […]

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