5 Tips for Creating Unique Characters
Imagine going to a new place and meeting the most fascinating person. They have delightful mannerisms, quirky speech patterns, and an intriguing personality. After chatting for a while, you move on and meet someone else—only to discover this person has the same traits and mannerisms as the first one. You wouldn’t be as impressed the second time. Now imagine gradually realizing everyone there has the same personality. You’d quickly become bored with this new place and lose any interest in staying.
This is what happens when a reader starts a new book. They’re excited to meet the protagonist and get to know them. But as they continue reading, if your characters all have the same personality, it won’t matter how interesting that first character was; they’re going to lose interest in the story.
This is why creating unique characters is vital. A varied cast will keep readers on their toes, while also driving conflict when different personalities clash.
In this post, we’ll give you five tips to distinguish your characters and create a realistic cast.
Make their hobbies unique, but not random
Sticking a random hobby on each character to make them stand out isn’t as helpful as you’d think. Readers won’t remember that Joe is the one who’s always juggling or that Anne is the expert on snakes when it’s all extra clutter on top of the actual plot.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t use these hobbies to differentiate characters. It’s just important to tie them to character and plot in a way that doesn’t feel random.
Ask yourself what led to your character embracing this hobby. How does it play into their lives on a daily basis? Could it play a role in their character arc?
In John Green’s Looking for Alaska, the protagonist’s hobby is collecting famous people’s last words. Although it’s just a weird character quirk at first, it ties in with his unrealized search for closure, something he is later robbed of. It’s a peculiar hobby, but by making it part of his character arc, it doesn’t come off as trite.
Avoid predictable conversation
When writing dialogue, there’s nothing easier than resorting to obvious responses or direct answers. But in real life, people speak in all kinds of ways. Some answer in monosyllables, while others go off on tangents. Some crack frequent jokes; others take everything too seriously. Your characters’ speech patterns should vary just as much as the characters.
Take this passage from page 178 of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Fevered Star:
“You’re a priest?” she said.
“Was a priest,” Iktan corrected, tapping xir cup. “Until Ziha’s mother and her murderous cousin killed a friend I cared about very much. And then your friend killed all but a few children and graybeards, which means there’s not much of the Watchers left. Clearly, people having murderers for friends is the problem here.”
“So if you’re no longer a priest, what are you?”
“Now I am a person with an enviable skill set and an exciting amount of indifference.”
Iktan’s quick-witted answers reveal a sarcastic manner alongside the important information we’re given, which gives the reader both fun dialogue and the promise of a unique character to come.
Vary characters’ reactions to others
Don’t just think about your characters’ origins; think about their relationships with society. How your character reacts when they see someone of a different background will tell us more than any amount of description. Are they judgmental? Or are they accepting, and find things in common with everyone they meet? The differences in relationships is an excellent place to add layers of unique character development.
Here is an excerpt from page 20 of E.R. Ramzipoor’s The Ventriloquists:
I knew it, just by the looks of the fellow; he wouldn’t be buying a paper, not him. Here was a man who was too good, too bright, for the workingman’s paper. But I’d not eaten in three days. I was so weak I could no longer make a fist. Half-mad with hunger, I put my hand in the man’s pocket.
The man whirled, unkempt hair flying. “What the devil—?” His eyes fell on me. “Are you trying to pick my pocket?”
“No, monsieur. I’m collecting payment for the paper you’re about to buy.” I slid over a copy of Le Soir.
He laughed, surprising me. Smiling, he dropped a handful of coins on my newsstand. “Keep the money,” he said, “and the paper.”
The expected reaction when the narrator picks his pocket would be for him to erupt at her, and for her to flee. But instead, the pickpocket makes a clever quip, and the man reacts with compassion instead of anger. This instantly makes both characters more unique.
Use minor flaws to make characters relatable
You’ve probably already thought of a major flaw for your protagonist to overcome. But have you thought about the more harmless faults that make us human? Readers like characters they can see themselves in, and a minor realistic flaw is a great way to create a connection.
For example, The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins absolutely does not want to go on an adventure. It’s quite a different stance than we’re used to from heroes! Bilbo fretting every step of the way, wishing he could be home with his tea, is more relatable than we’d like to admit—and more importantly, it makes him unique and well-rounded, instead of flat and predictable.
With your villains, flip this around by including an unexpectedly good quality among their dastardly ones.
Create great backstories
Nothing flattens a character faster than having them do only what the narrative demands of them. In any cast, you’ll have characters from completely different backgrounds, which will affect the way they think, look, and act. Even if you don’t include a character’s backstory in the novel, your awareness of it will come through on the page.
Read this passage from page 112 of Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation:
Red Jack wears a rough-spun shirt and trousers for a change, shedding his flashy attire for something more sensible. In the pale moonlight I see Katherine’s eyes widen. I understand why. Jackson is just as pretty in rough cotton as he is in fine silk. Plus his sleeves are rolled up, revealing his finely muscled forearms. He used to work on the docks, back before he realized he could make more money taking “odd jobs” on the roads between Baltimore and the outer settlements. It’s no wonder poor Katherine is smitten with him.
In this introduction to a side character, it would have been easy to just describe him as “good-looking”. But the narrator slips in that his muscles came from dockwork and that he now works odd jobs. These two quickly delivered tidbits instantly round out his character, making him realistic and unique.
For more on creating backstories, check out Writing Mastery’s 5 Tips for Writing Character Backstory.
Unique characters are crucial, because even the most vibrant setting or engaging plot will fall flat in the hands of lackluster characters. With the tips in this post, you’ll create complex and unique personalities that your reader will stick with until the very end!