First of all, I want to thank all of you for being patient with this week’s Being a Better Writer post and allowing me to move it to today. My mother was in town, and it’s been … two years, I believe, since I was able to see here last. Thanks to your patience and understanding, I was able to spend Monday and a good portion of my Tuesday with her.
So thank you, again. Living so far apart I don’t get many chances to see her, so it was wonderful to have a day to catch up.
I have a second bit of good news as well! I had a doctor’s appointment yesterday for my wrist, and it was pronounced almost fully recovered, but recovered enough to no longer have work restrictions. I have one more physical therapy appointment, and they want me to keep up the exercises for another month or after that, and effectively until the final checkup in May, but …
I also caught a filling that had cracked and fallen out within a week at the dentist’s, so I’m getting that fixed without much issue.
Right, so there’s lot’s of good news from me. Hope things are going well for all you readers. But with that said, let’s dive into today’s topic!
So, what do I mean by naming this post Too Unique? Well, I want to talk about something today that can make or break a book’s characters.
In fact, it’s on my mind because the last book I finished? Broken. In part because each of its nine or so characters was this. They were too unique.
Again, I’m using that term, but not explaining. So let’s get down to business. What do I mean by “too unique?”
Well, in the past on this site, I’ve spoken about creating unique characters. It’s part of what makes a character real to a person. Of the posts in which I’ve talked about this before, I’ve mentioned thinking about the people around us that we know and thinking about the unique bits that make them them. One example I gave is a friend of mine who can lift a sarcastic eyebrow like no one else. He’s so good at it, so known for it, that any of my friends who know him, upon reading this post, will know exactly who I am referring to.
There’s plenty else that makes him him, of course. It’s just that the sarcastic eyebrow is one of those things that he does so well that it’s become his “unique thing.”
Everybody has these. I tend to call them in character design “quirks.” Little bits of character that make our character human (even if they’re a dragon). They make them real.
Because we all have them. I knew a guy who was allergic to avocados but loved Guac so much he would make it once a week and eat until his tongue was swollen anyway. The pain was worth it. I know a woman who is fascinated with ancient cures and medicines, and can tell you almost at a glance what an everyday plant on the side of the road can be used for medically. Well, not always, but she’s getting there. It’s her thing. I know another guy who will simply fabricate a replacement part the moment he decided he needs one, breaking out his tools and taking measurements and printing it on his printer if it’s simple enough, rather than paying for an expensive replacement part (or even not so expensive; it’s his time).
You have stuff that is unique: Hobbies, interests, passions. I have them. We all have them. And, if we as creators are doing our jobs right, we create characters that have them too, interests and ideas and quirks and all manner of facets to their character that make them them. That set them apart from every other character so that when they come into a scene, the reader knows who they are, identifies with them, and knows a bit of what to expect.
Okay, again, we’ve talked about this before. So when does this become too unique? Well … when it’s too much for one reason or another.
I’m sure you’ve seen this before (especially if you’ve ventured into newbie fiction or fanfiction). Have you ever encountered a character that’s an orphan, as well as a master chess player, and a genius mechanic, and a chemical engineer, and a secret member of a royal family, and a member of a secretive criminal organization, and they’re only fifteen … it goes on and on? Do you remember reaching a point where you just rolled your eyes and said “come on, that’s just too much!” Mentally, anyway?
This isn’t a Mary-Sue/Marty-Stu, though they can often be intertwined. No this is simply a case of someone having too much that makes them unique. In the most obvious, and applicable way (we’ll get into other ways in a bit).
The problem is that the author, in trying to make them memorable or unique, has given their character too much to them for the reader to grasp onto. The character has become too unique, so much so that they stand out next to everyone around them.
In other words, they’re characters that need to have the old adage “less is more” applied to them. Yes, you can have a character with unique traits. Should, actually. But if you start piling trait after trait after trait on top of them, this character stops being “unique” and just starts being … a mess.
To put it another way, think of your character posing for a portrait. Like “classic painting” portrait, with them sitting there looking at the artist. And around them, or in the portrait, are going to be their traits that make them unique. Holding a cello in their hands, for example, or a football.
But you can only add so many of these elements to the portrait before they both begin to crowd the character out and overwhelm the portrait. Any good artist and photographer will tell you as a basic rule that too much, barring a few exceptions like making an I Spy picture, will distract and confuse the viewer.
So it is with our character writing. In giving our character elements that make them unique, if we shove too many into the spotlight we’re going to distract and confuse the reader.
Now, this isn’t to say, just so you’re aware, that we need to do something like pick “one single thing” and focus on it. We can touch on other unique elements. For example, in Hunter/Hunted there are maybe three or four lines in the entire story (which is like 300K words) where one of the protagonists touches on his ability to play the saxophone. It’s a part of that character’s being … but it’s not a focus. It’s mentioned as it’s part of him, in passing, like a temporary background of a panning image. It doesn’t overstay its welcome or drop onto the reader alongside dozens of other tidbits.
Which is actually a good lead-in to another important point with making our character unique that broke this book I read: all things in moderation.
See, unlike a painted portrait, which will be a single snapshot of a character, books have a timeline, meaning that the portraits we create of our characters grow, evolve, and change. In a way, they’re more like panning portrait shots with a moving character than a static image. Which means we can put a lot of character in them … we just need to spread it out.
Which was another problem character-wise (there were many) with the book I finished this last weekend. You got EVERYTHING up front. Introduction? Here comes the info-bomb! Which … made things all the worse in the end because the one error we’ve spoken about here of having too much to make each character unique? Well, the book didn’t do that; each character had only two or three things at most that was unique about them. But they were dumped on the reader in a rush rather than spread out organically. The result was a “Hi here is my character A and they have all these things about them” right in the first “frame” of their appearance. FULL DETAILS. But as the story moved on, those elements were either dropped or reinserted as “appropriate” for the scene.
Basically, the first “portrait” of each character was cluttered by shouting character uniqueness, and then all subsequent scenes sort-of picked one at random to be the “star trait” of each scene. So the first appearance? Too much. After that? Empty by comparison.
Don’t do that. Don’t overload a reader at each character’s introduction and then make them “empty” afterwards by comparison. It’s a panning portrait. Give the reader something to identify at the introduction, one or two things, maybe three, depending on how much detail you’re offering, and then let those elements slide across the story where needed. Don’t throw them at the reader (remember that this character does THIS!). Just … let them crop up as the character brings them. New ones even!
Okay, so we’ve talked about loading too many unique elements onto a single character, or into a single frame. And we’ve talked about some mental ways to picture things that may help alleviate these problems. But … Are there other ways we can make a character “too unique” and distract the reader?
Well, I’ve asked, so obviously the answer is yes. There are. And another way we can make our character “so unique” that it hurts our story is to hyperfocus something.
Have you ever heard someone criticize a book by referring to a character as an “obvious special snowflake?” It’s kind of a catch-all phrase that a lot of people use, and often it’s just used because they’re not sure what was wrong with a character, but there was an aspect to their presentation that they didn’t like, usually tied into a feeling of “one and only” uniqueness.
Well, often the problem is that a character is “too unique” and the reader doesn’t really know a term for expressing that, so they fall back on that phrase. But what drives the criticism?
Well, it can be a couple of things, from overdone “woe is me” character writing to making them too unique in a myriad of ways. But one of the more common ones is when a writer blows up a single trait to a completely exaggerated extreme.
Back to the portrait analogy above, imagine introducing your character and having them sit down for their portrait shot. But they love their car. That’s their unique trait. So they want the car in the picture. But it’s not enough to just have the hood or the front end. You need the whole car to show the viewer that they really love their car. And they’re going to stand behind it, just so you can see how important it really is.
“But wait a minute,” a few of you are probably saying. “Isn’t that making the car the focus of the portrait rather than our character?”
Yes. Those of you asking that question would be correct. What’s happened is that the unique trait of this character has usurped and replaced the character. Rather than the trait being in support of the character and making them up, it’s been flipped: the character is now making up and in support of the trait.
Hyperfocus. Happens. A lot. Sands, I read a comic strip once online drawing focus to this premise where one individual was excitedly telling their friend about their new webcomic they were making. ‘I’ve got a great cast of characters,’ they excitedly informed their friend. ‘This comic is going to be so good. They’re all super unique and awesome. They’re all LGBT people of color!’
The other friend nods, and asks ‘So what are they like?’
The artist looks unhappy and says ‘I just told you!’
Below the comic, the creator explained that there was nothing wrong with creating a comic where the characters were LGBT people of color, but that way too many comic creators seemed to think that this was all that they needed to do and that somehow gave them characters and a story. One trait.
And yes, I believe they chose the particular topic addressed because A) it is prevalent among webcomics to the degree of actually being a large number of comic summaries and B) they wanted to draw attention to get the word out.
Hyperfocus. That’s the problem the comic creator was talking about. There weren’t characters there. There were traits with a character somewhere in the background.
There’s nothing wrong with our character having traits. But we can’t let that trait be more than the character. The character should always be front and center, not the traits. The bits that serve to make our character unique cannot replace a character. They’re simply traits. It’d be as if all that friend I knew did, and was known for, and could do and contribute was their sarcastic eyebrow. But they were more than that. They were a hunter. They loved Halo. They enjoyed making cracks about people.
There was more to them than a single trait, and that trait wasn’t given so much importance in their life that it overshadowed who they were.
Don’t make up characters to support a trait. Make up traits to support a character.
Okay, there’s one other common mistake that this book made with regards to making its characters unique that I feel should be brought up. So we’re going to step back for a moment, start with a fairly blank slate that’s fresh save for the topic of “too unique.”
Have you ever read a story where you get characters who’s sole defining trait is defying a stereotype of some kind? The source of the stereotype can be anything, from social to familial, but the whole character revolves around defying that stereotype?
You probably have. It’s a good source of conflict. But … sometimes it can be a cheap source of character traits as well. Or a lazy one.
This book I finished? Nine characters. Each was given a species-wide stereotype.
More than half of them (I want to say around seven) were given traits that were loud shouts about defying that stereotype.
Look, obviously there are some issues there with “species of hats” that the book committed as well. But almost every single main character being an “outlier” against the stereotype?
Oh, and you’d better believe it was a source of “conflict and drama.” Crud, one character’s entire story in the book could be summed up as “I’m harboring a deep dark secret that goes against my people.” Because that’s all it ever really was. Contributing, interacting, whatever. That dark, counter-stereotype secret was everything.
Did I say “conflict and drama” or “cheap, lazy conflict and drama?” It was the latter.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with having a character or two that runs counter to a social system, an expectation, or some other form of “We expect you to be this, but instead you’re this.” It can help break the mold of having a very pigeonholed group. Used well, it can give a character some good conflict and drama. It can be the groundwork for a whole story itself (such as in Gordon Korman’s Son of the Mob).
But it can also be a trait that’s not only hyperfocused, but so easy and low-hanging to pick that no other work is done to develop the character. So not only does the reader end up with a hyperfocus trait and no character, but they end up with nothing else. And in the case of the book I read, more than half the cast fell right into this mistake. They were a bunch of characters trying to “prove” how unique they were by all hiding some secret that bucked what their race was known for. And in many cases, that was all we got.
Again, you can have a character trait that’s in opposition to a stereotype or expected trait. This is fine … provided it’s not hyperfocused, and our character has other traits. And we don’t overdo it. One character is enough. Two can be a little much. Any more than that, and the audience will start rolling their eyes.
So … where does all that leave us? Well, character uniqueness is a good thing. We want our characters to be unique so that they leave an impression on the reader and feel real. At the same time however, having too many traits that crowd out the character results in a mess. As does dumping them all on the reader at once, or hyperfocusing on a single trait to the point that it crowds out the actual character. And don’t pick an easy trait and have all characters share it. Don’t play the same card over and over again.
Let traits, quirks, and all that come out organically and be part of the character, not the other way around. Don’t let them overshadow who our characters are and want to be. Let them breathe, let them be their own stars. Not their traits.
It takes practice and work, but it’s worth it.
Good luck. Now get writing.