Why Should My Characters Be Unique?

StereotypeContinuing along the theme of characterisation from my previous post yesterday, a question about stereotyping popped out in my mind today: How necessary is it to have fancy characters?  

Now, for the purpose of this topic, let’s not confuse stereotyping with boring. How interesting a character turns out is really up to the skill of the writer and the setting. Dan Brown’s characters are as stereotypical as they come, but Robert Langdon and the white albino killer priest are still as entertaining as hell. He brings the tweed-loving Professor to life.

When creating a character for your story, should the protagonist be:

  • The Stereotype –  Ideal skill set needed or appears for the plot to be fulfilled.
  • Typical with a Twist – That uniqueness gives a selling point in the story.
  • Unique –  Totally against the grain, needs a lot of explanation & backstory.

Quick! Think of an answer before reading ahead. 

Done?

Good.

My guess is most of you went with Typical with a Twist. It seems like the most sensible answer right?  I did too, so I went ahead to compile a list of recent media that would fit into these three archetypes:

The Stereotype

  • Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games)
  • Robert Langdon (Da Vinci Code) – Basically all of Dan Brown books
  • Almost all the protagonist in Michael Crichton books
  • Almost all the protagonist in Sidney Sheldon books
  • Almost all the protagonist in Danielle Steele books
  • James Bond  / Jason Bourne / Most spies and thrillers
  • Chosen Ones – Harry Potter / Luke Sky Walker / Hobbit (One trick flawed characters)

Typical with a Twist

  • Dexter (TV show) / Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) / Actually most TV stars who play up a particular gimmick
  • The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo
  • Tyrion Lannister (Game Of Thrones)

Absolutely Unique

  • Fantasy / Space-travel themed fiction (which requires A LOT of backstory to explain, except the all t00 familiar chosen one concept)
  • Comic Book Heroes (Reason why there is always a origins somewhere)
  • 50 shades of Grey (sort of, in the perverse sense)

My perspective

When I was compiling this list, I thought I would have a lot of characters to put under Twist. But towards the end, with a bit of analyzing, I shifted most of them into Stereotype instead. What I have initially believed to be special points, turns out to be bland character profiles when you compare it to the genre at large.

Case in point: I initially wanted to throw Jason Bourne into the Twist category, but then I realise this – Even if the book did away with all the drug/virus nonsense and just put Jason Bourne as a escaped patient from a super-soldier program, would there be any confusion or grumbling? No, people have already learnt to accept such story lines without explanation. True, that would defeat the purpose of the story, but it seemed like the Jason Bourne was created to accommodate the story rather than the other way around.

Then I looked at all the characters that I have left in the Twist category. I realised that by giving the character a gimmick or handicap, it usually means the story is catering to the character instead of the other way around. (Big Bang Theory is extremely guilty of feeding Sheldon juicy scenarios for example). Plots that seem to be created SPECIFICALLY for that character instead of the other way round.

And for the unique ones, well let’s just say there’s a reason why a quarter of the book/movie is usually devoted to just explaining the settings and the characters. By which point, you learn everything about them and they stop being unique since you just read 100 pages of who they are.

Get to the point!

My point is – Often, when I read a writer’s or novelist guide to characters, it’s often advised that we have a ready bank of characters to use to insert into our stories.

Then I look at the bestsellers I see this:

Michael Crichton – Oh I have a scene with poisonous spiders, ok Character B shall be a specialist Spider-Guru.

Suzanne Collins – Oh I need to give my character a weapon she can use, insert backstory about how Katniss’s father taught her how to shoot.

Danielle Steele – I need to my character to be rich and sexy as hell! Cue chapter 3 flashback to a rags to riches story about her father and her tragic mother.

Honestly, I’m beginning to have second thoughts about half of the writer guides out there on how to write characters. To me now, it’s pretty clear that I should have a unique setting, then develop a stereotypical character perfect for the setting. To make him interesting, as stated in my previous post again, talk about Birth/History, Pain, Rise To Fame, Current, Feelings. That backstory can be unique, you’re character itself shouldn’t, he should be PERFECT for the story (with a splash of tragedy).

I don’t have a conclusion to this post, since it’s just a niggling thought in my head that I wanted to get out. But I thought this would make a good discussion point either now or in future. I intend to revisit the importance of characters in telling a story in future. For now, I’m skipping the character development step in my writing until I flesh out my story and know what kind of character I need to fill the story.

Thoughts? Again note, please do not mix up stereotype with boring.

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4 thoughts on “Why Should My Characters Be Unique?

  1. Great post. I love the thoughts of developing character. I think the stereotypical character is almost always required because it saves the author thousands of words in description because the reader already has preset idea of what the character is about.

    The main character in my book is a man raised in the mountains of West Virginia. He hunts, fishes, his father was a coal miner, he married his high school sweetheart, three kids, ect. Everything about him was stereotypical so I changed his race to African-American. That gave him a different slant and I hope makes him someone that the reader can root for. His twist is that he is a commercial pilot. I wanted to write about airplanes so I needed a pilot.

    • As long as he fits your story. I think stereotyping of background and all is ok, just as long as he doesn’t turn out to be totally cliche and predictable in the story.

      • I dont like predictable. But there is a fine line because the character has to be true to themself. In doing do, they will be predictable because all people who are blank, like blank.

        I think that 99% of the world’s population are good people, who love their family and just want to be left alone by the powers that be. If you take a person who is normal like that, and shake up their world. Their struggle will be the fight to return to that state of normalcy. Within that struggle is the opportunity to be random and unpredictable. To me, that is where character is developed and perfected.

      • Ah, the inevitable conflict in a story. While character development / growth is great, I don’t like stories that turn the character 180 degrees, you know like 90 pound weakling suddenly able to win the world boxing championship because some girl says she loves him, etc.

        That’s not normalcy, that’s insane. But you’re right, when you say every story needs a bit of that.

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