Think about what makes you interested or drawn to certain people. What qualities of theirs pull you in? Is it a sense of humor? Some interesting hobby or skill? Engaging style of talking or fascinating facial expressions or gestures?
Every character in your novel should have something about him that makes him interesting. It takes some work to create original, fresh, unpredictable characters, but it’s worthwhile to do. If you don’t want to spend an evening at a party among boring people, how can you expect your readers to be willing to spend ten to twenty hours of their life “hanging out” with your boring characters? We owe it to our readers to take the time to give them a unique cast of characters.
Real People Are Wholly Individual
Real people are influenced by their upbringing. Depending on their socioeconomic environment, ethnicity and subculture, geographic roots, education, and many other factors, people will not only vary in the way they move, think, and talk—they will acquire individual mannerisms and quirks and habits.
Listen to people sometime at a coffee shop or a park. Give yourself the assignment to notice these little individual flairs that seem to define each person’s personality. Be creative and imagine a history and present profile for each person as they walk by the park bench you are sitting on. Pay attention. Notice what stands out.
I love to give each of my characters a word whisker or two. What is a word whisker? It’s an expression or phrase, or maybe even one word, that they repeat a lot (sometimes to the point of annoyance). Frank Zappa wrote a great hit song years back that his daughter, Moon Unit, “starred in” called “Valley Girl.” I especially related to that song because, yes, I was a valley girl. I great up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, and, like the “character” in his song, I hung out at the Galleria, and I did on occasion say “fer sure.”
In the song, among other word whiskers like “you know” and “gag me with a spoon,” the singer repeated over and over: “fer sure, fer sure.” The chorus of the song went: “She’s a valley girl, fer sure, fer sure. She’s a valley girl, and there ain’t no cure.”
Teenage girls in the “valley” decades ago (when I was young) talked like that. Yes, it was annoying and oftentimes obnoxious, and who knows where all these expressions actually came from (who cares)? But I hope you get my point. Memorable characters often have a unique way of talking, and say some repeated phrases they’ve glomped on to. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s the small quirks and behaviors we have that make us unique (and, we hope, interesting) people.
Characters in The Closer
You can make annoying, boring, insipid characters you need to have in your story interesting by giving them quirks and weird hobbies and strange gestures. I love the TV series The Closer. It’s not just a great show because of the screenwriting, which is wonderful, or the terrific episode plots. What makes The Closer so terrific is the characters that populate the series. The main character, played by Kyra Sedgwick, is a Southern gal who comes to LA to be the head homicide detective in a precinct. Immediately she clashes with everyone there because of her quirks, foibles, upbringing, manners, perspective, and list goes on.
In addition to her being so completely at odds with every on her team (who all have to obey her and who instantly dislike her), she has really funny, unique quirks. First off, she has absolutely no sense of direction and gets lost at the drop of a hat (which her disgruntled subordinates take advantage of in the way of practical jokes). Next, she is obsessed with sweets and hides them everywhere, indulging in them with great guilt, which makes you wonder why she’s so neurotic about that. Then, this tough detective is absolutely terrorized by her sweet Southern parents. She lapses into a timid little girl when she has to answer to Daddy.
All these crazy characteristics make her highly entertaining, and of course, the more each character is set in his way and has strong personality traits, the more all characters clash with one another, which is what is desired. The creators of The Closer populated the investigative team with a riot of wild characters that are wholly believable, each with his own set of odd behaviors, speech, and attitudes. I highly recommend you watch a couple of seasons of this show (even if you aren’t into cop shows) just to study the characters.
The brilliance of this show is in the way these characters grow, change, and develop over the seasons. I mentioned in last week’s post how critical it is to have secondary characters grow and change alongside the protagonist. In The Closer, as the main character adjusts to life in LA and proves her worth to her team, those who at first opposed her become her most loyal supporters. By putting them through crucibles of fire together, they grow and change together, and their relationships strengthen.
And this is the best thing you can do to create genuine characters for your novel—have them go through tough times together. Have them deal with each other at their best and their worst, but know that conflict is the crucible that will put those relationships through severe testing.
An Exercise to Help You
Here’s a simple exercise you can do. Make a list of your secondary characters—all of them. Even the minor characters, like that waitress who shows up a few times in scenes at the diner. Hopefully you have already created a strong background for each character so they have a specific upbringing that influences who they are. You’ve come up with their core need, deepest dream, greatest fear, all designed to serve the needs of the plot and create conflict with your protagonist (yes, even the allies and romance character types).
Now, give each one a physical quirk or behavior that fits their personality. Maybe the waitress clicks her pen repeatedly; that’s her nervous habit. Or she might bite her nails because she is wired on too much coffee.
Give each character a phrase or two, maybe a saying, they like to spout. Don’t get corny here, but again, if you listen to people talk at the park or Starbuck’s you will pick up on these word whiskers. Don’t clutter your novel with “ums” and “uhs” to mimic real life. Those aren’t interesting word whiskers. Instead, think of something catchy.
In my fantasy novel The Wolf of Tebron, I created a wolf that mostly embodied the wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, a writer I feel had gobs of great sayings (I also drew from C. S. Lewis). So I gave my wolf, Ruyah, two things he said over and over: “Fancy that,” and “It is said among wolves . . .” My protagonist got a bit tired of hearing him say those words so often, but having Ruyah do so fit his character and, I hope, made him memorable. I recall a minor character in the TV series LA Law decades ago—an annoying guy—who always said “Correct me if I’m wrong.” He was a great character, and I wanted to whack him upside the head all the time. But that phrase of his was almost iconic for his personality—perfect.
Don’t overdo it here. Don’t fill your novel with crazy characters all spouting repeated silly expressions to excess. Some people don’t have favorite phrases. But they will have some gesture or facial expression or quirk that is unique to them, and that’s what you want to bring out in a way that showcases who they are.
You Should Create Characters You Love
Try to create characters you love. That entertain, move, inspire you. If you can get your characters to make you laugh or cry, you are on the path to creating a memorable novel.
So what’s the secret to crafting genuine characters? Don’t settle for the stereotype. Spend time really observing people and notice their individual mannerisms, way of speaking, gestures. Great characters are wholly unique, have odd quirks, say repeated words and phrases they’ve picked up. When each character you create fascinates you to the point you want to be around them and see what they do and say next, you’ve done your job.
This wraps up our exploration into the sixth key pillar of novel construction: Secondary Characters with Their Own Needs. I hope you’ve learned some great insights into how to craft these important characters for your novel. And now . . . you get a new checklist! Be sure to carefully consider all the twelve sets of questions on your checklist. If you can answer them to your satisfaction, you know you have a strong pillar that will hold up your story.
Ready for the next one? We’ll be looking at another of my favorites: Setting with a Purpose.
Got some thoughts about how to craft a unique character? What helpful point have you learned about creating secondary characters that you didn’t know before and plan to work into your novel?