Seven Tips for Writing Unique Characters

by | 15 September 2017 | Writing | 42 comments

“Your characters are cliché.”

Isn’t that one of the worst things that a writer can hear? The precious babies that you’ve spent so much time on sound like just another Harry Potter. Just another Disney princess.

But with the amount of books in the world today, how can you possibly write a unique character? After all “there’s nothing new under the sun,” right?

Right. There’s nothing completely new, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a unique character. So I’ve got seven tips that you can use to liven up your characters a little and give them that extra tweak of individuality. Obviously some of them don’t work for every single story ever, and there’s a ton of other ways and more details but I can’t possibly cover everything in one post. 😛

(On that note though, if there’s something in here that you would like me to expand on, do tell and I can do another separate post on it.)

1: An inner goal

Each character has a reason and a motivation that keeps them sticking around through the story. They want to overthrow the evil queen of the moon. They want to protect those they love. There’s a reason for each one, and they’re all different reasons.

If you can find your character’s motivation, it opens up a lot more room for a deeper layer to their personality. And the deeper your characters are, the more original and unique they will be.

 

2: Don’t let them rest

Obviously I’m not meaning this in a literal sense. Please let your characters sleep at some point in the story. Be nice. 😛

What I mean is don’t be satisfied with ‘good enough.’ Don’t let your character walk into the scene, say his lines, and then leave again. Make him hang around in the background, inserting random comments, fiddling with his hat, coughing every time someone says something he doesn’t agree with. Look a little deeper and you’ll actually find that your characters might just be more unique and real than you originally thought.

Ask yourself questions about the character or get a friend to ask questions. They can be completely random questions that maybe aren’t even related to the story, but help to craft deeper characters.

If your character just walks into the screen to say a line and then leaves, it gives your readers a sense of forced action—like your character is a puppet on a string, not a real living, breathing being. And puppets aren’t unique.

 

3: Individual character voice

This isn’t meaning the way they talk, but rather the way the book (or chapter, if it’s a split POV (point of view) novel) is written through them. How it has their thoughts. Their views. Their hopes and dreams and personality melded into the prose.

Finding the voice of your narrator is a matter of really getting into their mind. As the writer, you need to be them while you’re writing them. You can’t just respond however you personally would, because if all your characters are basically you, then they’re all basically the same and you’ve lost the sense of uniqueness.

As soon as you find the specific character’s voice, they’re even more realistic and personal. Get into their heads and the POV should sound like they’re talking (this applies for both first and third person). Show their thoughts. If you have multiple POV characters, each one should sound different. One might be more logical. The other might be more snarky. There should be difference enough that the reader can tell whose perspective it’s from without needing to be told.

 

4: Play on the cliché

You have a contemporary character called Henry Pots. He wears glasses, lives with his aunt and uncle, and sleeps in a tiny, cramped room. Sound familiar? Poor Henry Pots sounds very similar to Harry Potter and very clearly needs to be completely revamped.

Or does he? What if he’s read Harry Potter himself and always dreams that he’ll get a Hogwarts letter one day and discover that he’s related? What if people call him Harry Potter and it really gets on his nerves? What if he’s annoyed at the similarity because his personality is so completely opposite than Harry’s is?

This is a method of dealing with clichés in general—pointing them out and making a big thing about them before the readers have a chance to.

Obviously this is a very extreme example, and if you’ve gotten this far with a character similarity, then it might be a good idea to change it up a little. 😛 This step is only a last resort.

 

5: Maybe they’re already more unique than you think

Following on from the last point, if you’re worried that your character is a rip-off of another character, before you throw them out the window—look a little deeper. How close are they really?

When I started reading the Percy Jackson series, I was slightly sceptical. I’d just read Harry Potter and then boom. Another YA series about a boy with dark hair and green eyes and a special power and a special place for these powered kids. I admit I rolled my eyes a little.

After reading the rest of The Lightning Thief (and subsequently the rest of the series) I no longer considered Percy a Harry-copy. He was a completely different character who very much had his own personality and story.

It’s possible that your character isn’t as close as you think they are. And even if they start out slightly similar, they might just weave their own story as you write them. So don’t be too hasty to completely scrap them.

 

6: Outward tics and quirks

These tics are another way to develop your character in his own unique way. It’s just a small thing—an action or word—that he uses a lot. Real people do this, and using it for characters adds another layer of realism to them.

Perhaps he waves his hands around expressively when he talks. Maybe she fiddles with her necklace all. the. time. A friend of mine rubs her hands together a lot, when coming up with evil plans, and just when talking about anything at all. One of my brothers screws his eyebrows up if he’s confused. Watch the people you know—be it your family or friends—and see what hand actions they use, or what words they keep saying. Maybe they always respond with “indeed” instead of “yes” or they say “cool” to basically everything.

Sometimes you can use these tics to be a contrast with their personality. A character might be a very prim and proper sort of man, but he has a horrible posture, for example.

You could have a character who wears an eyepatch. Or has a specific tattoo or scar. These are also good methods, but they do need to have a reason.

Harry can’t just have a lightning shaped scar on his forehead. He has to have it because it was the mark left by Voldemort He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. You can’t just say that Captain Hook has a missing hand. You have to expand and give him a reason. Why is he missing a hand? Once we push that last little bit, we discover that the Crocodile bit it off, and still as his watch ticking away inside of him.

 

7: Character contradictions

Every character has a role in the story.

Carswell Thorne is a charismatic criminal and thief. Jason Bourne is a fugitive and former assassin. Jace (apart from being heartbreakingly precious) is a rebel and a fighter.

If that was all these characters were, they simply wouldn’t be anywhere near as good. But they go a lot deeper than this because they have inner personalities, morals, or views that contradict this outward appearance.

Thorne considers himself a ‘bad’ person who shouldn’t be trusted and absolutely couldn’t be a hero. This contradicts the charismatic way he acts and the role he plays.

Bourne is a former assassin, but he is still a decent man.

Jace fights to protect those he loves and cares about, but inwardly he’s the most vulnerable character in the book.

These contradictions craft the characters into far deeper beings. More realistic. More inciting. More unique.

If you find your character’s role in the story, you can find something to bounce off of that in a contradiction, and you can dig a little deeper into who he or she really is.

 

Amongst the gajillion things you have to do to write a story, characters are high up on the list of importance. Without good characters, your readers are less likely to be drawn into the story. Crafting unique characters is incredibly important, but sometimes it actually isn’t as hard as it sounds. It can be just a small tic or a little tweak that draws them out and really brings them to life in your novel.

 

What contradictions have you used in your characters? Do you/your characters have any tics or specific quirks? Let’s chat!

Jane Maree

Jane Maree

Jane Maree is an Adventurer—exploring the endless wonders of God’s beautiful creation. She started writing by accident, but since the very beginning has loved the enchantment of words on paper. If you say anything about pizza, superheroes, books, or any of her many, many fandoms, she’ll come at the double. Aside from crafting worlds using only twenty-six letters, she is a passionate Jesus-lover, freelance editor, self-trained martial artist, songwriter, and musician. In her spare time, she's often off on random adventures in the name of story research. She seeks to inspire her readers to step out and become the heroes of hope this world needs.

42 Comments

  1. Emily

    Great post, Jane! Thanks to you I am now making plans to add some quirks to one of my characters ;P. Thanks for this!

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Thanks! 😀 Ooh yes, have fun with that. 😛
      You’re very welcome.

      Reply
  2. Kendra Lynne

    VERY, VERY good post!!! This was so awesome and its going to help me a lot. Thank you!!!

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Awk I’m so glad! Go and write allll the epic characters. 😀

      Reply
      • Kendra Lynne

        I’ll try, and with this post I have a better chance of succeeding. 😊

        Reply
  3. Jake T.

    Ahhh, I needed this so much!!!! My villain has a quirk where he always forgets the words he’s trying to come up with. Consequently, he’s always like, “what’s the word…”
    Anyways, AWESOME POST!
    p.s. i’m not ghosting anymore 🙂

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Woohoo it’s good to see you out in the open (Stalker xP). 😛

      Ooh that’s such a cool quirk, I love it! XD

      Reply
  4. J.A.Penrose

    Very awesome and useful post! Some great advice, and I expect LOOOOOTS more of this epic stuff.
    It is really helpful, useful, and cool. *Nods* Very good.

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Ayy I’m so glad you liked it. 😛 Hopefully you’ll be able to use it on your characters!

      Reply
  5. Clare Farrelly

    I laughed out loud at the photo you used for the post title. And I like photos in posts very much. I must say the contrast of those three characters book/story covers is quite startling. Great post too.

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      It was just TOO PERFECT. XD I couldn’t not use it.
      I’ll admit that I was considering scrapping the picture because the covers just reeeaally didn’t go. xP But pictures are good, right? So it stayed.
      Thanks! 🙂

      Reply
  6. Ralraymee

    Wow. Okay… I /definately/ have to use these, as I just figured out that one of my characters only has one (realllyyyy weak) reason to be there, and he’s the hilarious one! *Sobs*

    Also, I read your comment on Kendra’s MBTI things post, and are you ENFP TOO? *Starts flailing in excitement*

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Ack, nooo. D: Well, GIVE him a reason then. Give him backstory. Give him purpose. Make that kiddo have a reason. *fingerguns* You’ll do fine.

      And yep, I am. 😀 (I believe we actually discussed that in the camp nano cabin in July but pffft that was so long ago I’ve almost forgotten too. xP)

      Reply
      • Ralraymee

        YAY! *Tackle hugs*

        (Also, we did talk about it and I just forgot we were both Enfp XD)

        Reply
        • Jane Maree

          Haha yep, that explains it. xP Now you know/remember! 😀

          Reply
  7. Quinley

    Awesome post. I loved how you talked about giving characters quirks and making them unique.
    -Quinley

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Thank you! That’s one of my favourite ways of weaving little unique aspects into my characters. I like to give them small likes and dislikes and develop the tiny little details so that they’re more like real life people. 🙂

      Reply
  8. MiddleEarthMusician

    Oooooh, thanks for this post!!! I needed tips for writing characters for my OYAN novel, and this was SO HELPFUL!!! XD XD XD
    Love the picture of the little girl! 😉

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Yay that’s exciting! Good luck with character building!! 😛
      Aaah yes. That’s my little sister. She’s so CUTE. XD

      Reply
        • Jane Maree

          Brace yourself for more cute photos in the future. XP I have several up my sleeve for more post headers. 😛

          Reply
  9. Sally Farrelly

    I love the cute girl in the header too. 😍
    It is great you are sharing all you are learning with others. Keep up the great work.

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      So cute. 😛
      Thanks! ^-^

      Reply
  10. Katie Grace

    OOOH I LOVE THIS, JANE! It’s funny, because I posted about my struggles with characterization today… and then it turns out you just wrote a post on writing unique characters. Further proof that we’re twins. XD

    I SHALL BE COMING BACK TO THIS POST FOR WHEN I BEGIN PLOTTING. I think I’m going to have a larger cast than I normally do in my NaNo novel, so I’ll really need this for making each of their personalities stand out. Squeee thank you!

    katie grace
    a writer’s faith

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      I know right?? I saw your post and was “Oh hey. I did a post on characters too!” XD

      Awk that really makes me excited. ^-^ Also ALL THE CHARACTERS. I hope this will help make them all epic and unique. 🙂

      Reply
  11. Anna C. S.

    VERY HELPFUL POST <3 You have the best tips Jane! 🙂

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Thank you, Anna! I’m so glad it helped. 😀

      Reply
  12. Savannah Grace

    ACK, this was so awesome. Love love loved your advice on characters – it was super helpful! Thanks for the epic post, Prill! <3

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Dude, you did the most epic blog series on characters. I’m nothing beside that. *blushes* Thank you! 😍

      Reply
  13. Sarah Louise

    AWW, I still love that header picture xD Soooo cuuuuuuuuute. *ahem* Anyway, this was a great post Jane! T’was very, very, very, very helpful 😀

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Saaame. XD She’s adorable. (I may or may not have one or two more photos of her for future headers. XP)
      Yeep, that’s good to hear. ^-^ Good luck with all the characters!

      Reply
  14. GJE

    AHHHH!!!!!!!! I love this post so much! You made some AWESOME points.
    When I first started writing, I had trouble coming up with unique character personalities. I mean, EVERY PERSON WAS THE SAME. But now it’s probably my favorite thing to do as a writer!
    Characterizing is my favorite.

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      YEEP thanks! ^-^
      I’m not going to deny it—ME TOO. >.< Nowdays crafting characters is totally one of my favourite things too! *fistbumps*

      Reply
      • GJE

        You’re welcome!!!!!! (o’-‘o)
        I LOVE ALL MY CHARACTER BABIES!!! ACK! One of the main protagonists in my book – Alexander – is probably my most intriguing. I love him!!!!!!
        *fistbumps back, trying to look cool*

        Reply
        • Jane Maree

          Yesss. 😛 That’s so cool! What’s your book about?

          Reply
          • GJE

            😀
            It’s about a family that starts fostering a boy named Alexander. Alex and his foster sister (Grace) take turns narrating the story.
            Of course, there’s a lot more to the story than that, but that’s the MAIN thing….
            XD I only started a week or two ago, but I’ve made a lot of progress. YAY!

            Reply
            • Jane Maree

              Ooh that’s cool!
              Sounds like an interesting context for a story. 🙂

              Reply
  15. Gray Marie Cox

    I LOVE this post! It’s extremely helpful, thank you!! Also, the picture of the girl is adorable and fits this post’s theme perfectly. XD

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      I’m so glad it was helpful! 😀 Awh thanks. 😛 (as you may have noticed, that’s my smol sister) It was just such a cute photo that I had to use it. xD

      Reply
  16. (Anna) Brie Donning

    So good. I’m not bad at characters, but there isn’t a lot of reason behind their uniqueness. In fact when it come to appearance they’re pretty boring. Some people have scars, but no one has an interesting scar.

    It’s particularly a problem with the story I’m working on at the moment. I had figured out to much of the story before really creating my main character. She fills the role and does what she’s supposed to do. Most of the time at least. I’ve manged to make her a bit more interesting and contradictory, but that was mostly a rebellion against her being an idiot. Which the story originally forced her to be.

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Oh dear that does sound a little difficult. That would be difficult to sort out. Forced characters are always hard to develop nicely—I’ve been there. >.<

      Reply

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