While you lathered up under the shower’s spray, a character pushed himself into your mind. He was tall, dark and handsome AND–get this– he was a professional mouth organist who toured the world playing harmonica while taking care of his schizophrenic, bi-polar mother who had rickets. He also bred a bouncing brood of howler monkeys while maintaining a thriving weekly Bible study on the book of Jude. And his name? Giovanni Alfonso Vascchi. Simply. Dreamy.
You were so excited about this UNIQUE character, you didn’t give a rip about the water damage to the new wood floors (who puts wood in a bathroom?), and toddled au naturale to your phone where you thumbed in a comprehensive profile in your One Note app.
Your agent is gonna have a near stroke from glee over such a UNIQUE character! Seriously, who doesn’t love a hot man who plays a harmonica and has pet monkeys?
That’s unique all right, but, to be honest, you could have the uniquest of the unique characters in the universe and readers will plop down the book with a disdainful utterance of, “meh.” Writing guru, Donald Maass, in his book Writing 21st Century Fiction, says that character traits don’t matter so much. What does, is a character’s ability to unlock the hearts of readers.
Yeah, yeah, monkeys are cute to some people. But others loathe the things. The whole point is that the character needs qualities that make him uniquely human. Sure, taking care of a mentally ill mother is admirable while adhering to such a demanding schedule, but can you say for sure readers will find Giovanni relateable?
Sometimes when you go so far out of your way to create a dazzling unique character, you end up distracting the reader from what’s important. In fact, readers may find such folk tiresome.
Let me get to my point
I know some of you are making a list of alien characters from Doctor Who or Star Trek that are more “human” than most humans. Let’s think about this a minute. Take Bannakaffalatta, the 3 foot-tall spikey-headed red cyborg alien. The only resemblance to being human is that he wears a tux. Appearances alone would cause many viewers to disregard him as absurd. It’s the quality of self-sacrifice that sears him on one’s memory. He willingly dies so his friends can live. His action is what makes him memorable—not his appearance or name.
The human experience is what draws a reader, in our context, to a character. Who cares what the character looks like, or does in his spare time? It’s what he contributes to the overarching plot and arc that matters. Self-sacrifice, not training monkeys is what fuses the connection.
Capturing the human experience
Don’t you see how freeing this is? This means you can have a plumber named Bill, who works eighteen hours a day to put food on the table for his wife and kids in a down economy. He has a labradoodle. No monkeys. He loves football, fly-fishing, and camping. Sounds boring, right? But, what if you find out that Bill and his wife couldn’t have kids of their own, so they adopted from the foster care system. What if the reason he works so hard is to provide for more foster kids and pay for a lawyer in a court battle to save a kid from an abusive situation?
Is he so boring now?
Who’s more relateable? Bill or Giovanni?
Take Joe Pickett, the hero of C.J. Box’s mystery series. Joe is a game warden in Wyoming. He has a wife, two kids and a dog. He sits on hills and counts wildlife and checks for hunting permits during respective seasons. Joe plays by the rules. Always does the right thing. Is faithful to his wife. Sounds pretty “normal”, but did you know Box’s Joe Pickett novels are some of the best-selling mysteries of all time? Box has won heaps of awards for this ordinary Joe (pardon the pun).He puts Pickett in some remarkable situations. It’s Joe’s normalness that makes him exceptional. His integrity and the struggle to preserve it is what makes readers by the millions come back again and again. Joe doesn’t have any special talents, in fact, for a Wyoming guy, his gun skills are worse than lackluster.
What makes a character unique is how he or she responds when you put them in the crucible of your plot. HOW they handle hard things and overcome is what makes them special. Participation in the common human experience with integrity, innovation, passion and faith is what makes them unique.
Readers want to admire your characters.
So go to your WIP right now and take a close look at the cast in your drama. How ordinary can you make them so they exceed the extraordinary?
A word about bad guys
Bad-to-the-core villians are so cliché and… boring. If you want your antagonist to stand out, give him or her some redeeming qualities that make readers wrestle with liking and hating them. Give them a soft spot. A kindness. Trust me. It will open up some interesting experiences in your storymaking and plump your word count.
With pen to paper,