Think about characters you love to watch or read about. What makes them unique? What strange tendencies, unusual habits or predilections do they have?
I thought about this as I started planning exercises for my Monday Night Writers group, as a good method for creating our own memorable characters. After all, we don’t want our readers to have to create cheat sheets so they can keep our characters straight, nor do we want to always have to insert dialogue tags: “said Sue,” “said Bill,” “said Mary.”
We want our characters to be uniquely themselves, just like real people. And one way to do this is to give them some habit or tendency, especially if it is at odds to other aspects of their personality, an internal conflict they are dealing with or something that other people would consider not at all in keeping with what they would have expected.
Think of Telly Savalas as Kojak with his lollipop, Kyra Sedgwick as “The Closer” with her craving for chocolate, Burn Notice spy Michael with his yogurt habit. Or the brilliant Sherlock Holmes unable to overcome his drug addiction and the sweet Miss Marple who was nonetheless never surprised at life’s seamier side. These conflicts and characteristics give a character depth, make them more dimensional and ultimately provide us with something to like, hate, feel sympathy for or question.
In short, we find ourselves responding to them as though they were real—and isn’t that what an author wants? To make our characters so real that our readers expect to meet them somewhere walking down the road, buying toilet paper in the store, eating a taco or fried chicken?
At the same time, it has to fit, make sense. You don’t want them to be so bizarre that they act “out of character.” For example, in my short story “The Clock”, the husband is so passive, so quiet, so obedient that when he finally does react, we are surprised — and yet, are we really? And isn’t he just, in a strange and unexpected way, simply responding to what she said? What would people say when they read about his actions in the daily paper” “I would never have thought it of him!” Yet, why not? When is enough enough?
“Damn it, Harold, turn it the other way! You’re doing it wrong!” and now the tide was higher and stronger than it had ever been before. Harold had to stop for a moment to catch his breath before trying once more to wind the clock.
“Are you deaf, Harold? I told you a thousand times already—turn it clockwise or it will stop again!”
Harold plunged the screwdriver in as far as it would go, carefully turning it counter-clockwise until the handle was too slippery to grasp. Then, he lightly stepped off the stool, breathing easier in the silence.
“You’re right, Margaret,” he remarked, looking down at the crumpled figure. “It did stop.”
Go through your fiction and see if you can identify something that is at odds or unique about your characters, some hidden dimension, internal conflict that makes them whole and wholly them.