Being a Better Writer: Making Characters “Pop”

Hello readers! How are you all this Monday morning? Or I suppose afternoon, as it’s about to be? Spry? Alert?

Hopefully that last one, because you’re about to read another Being a Better Writer post! Furthermore, it’s not a scheduled one!

That’s right baby, I’m back! Back from a fantastic Alaska experience, which I have chronicled with pictures and video here. Yes, you should be clicking that link if you have even the faintest interest in seeing whales, fish, Alaskan scenery, or videos of rain.

But I’m back now, and after a day “off” last week ( somehow I still managed to write about 17,000 words in a week I was supposed to be relaxing for) I’ve returned to tackle the topic list once more and bring you readers writing topics.

So, what are we talking about this week as I return to my regular duties? Well, I took a look at the list and spotted this little topic that I had jotted down as one I wanted to hit, and well, it popped out to me as much then as it does now. So today, we’re going to talk about making characters “pop.”

Of course, before we get into the how we’re going to have to define exactly what it means to have a character that “pops.” So hit the jump, and let’s get started. What is a character that “pops?”

I’ll answer this question with a second question: Have you, reader, ever read a story where the main characters were just … there? Perhaps you might have heard it described as “I don’t care about this character” but it’s not just that. Have you ever read a book where you’re hard pressed to find any difference between the main character and the characters around them? Say, for example, in who is speaking? Where if dialogue goes for a sentence or two without a tag, it’s not clear at all who said something because the line could have come from any of them, because they all sound the same?

Yeah, I’ve read books like that. In fact, I still recall a really grievous one where every character spoke exactly like every other character. This including a six year-old, which led to a hilarious scene in which the parent, the other adult, and the six year-old are all discussing how to escape and the child is elucidating just as well as the two adults (and they even talked back to him the same way).

That had gone so wrong that it “popped” for the wrong reasons, but because the dialogue was all so similarly bland, there wasn’t anything for my mind to “latch” to with any of the characters. As a result, I remember nothing about any of them, save the out of place age with the kid.

Which is a problem, for any book with protagonists. We want to remember them. We want our audience to know who they are and think about them! In other words, we want them to “pop,” to stand out to our reader.

In fact, it’s not just the protagonists we want to “pop.” Ideally, we should want all our characters to pop in some way. To stand out, whether they’re a two-bit thief that’s only going to be around for a few scenes, or a protagonist that your reader is going to be with for the whole book. The last thing we want is for our book to run afoul of a “sea of similar faces” problem, where all the characters that aren’t the protagonists are just copy-pasted filler.

Let me put it another way before we move on: A forest quickly becomes forgettable if every tree along the trail is identical to the last one, right down to height, bark, leaves, shape, etc. If all the trees are identical, all we have to go on is the winding and elevation change of the trail itself. The view never changes, as the identical trees offer no breaks, so there’s little else to stand out to your mind aside from “tree.”

Now compare this to a trail in the real world. It starts out surrounded by trees that are all the same kind, but each different. Then it turns, going up a steep hill, and the trees thin, giving you a view of the parking lot and making the footing tricky. When it levels out, there’s a tree that’s now a log, fallen on across the trail, and you step over it. Then the ground gets rocky, the trees changing or their roots snaking over the ground like long ropes.

It’s all different. What I just reiterated there? Memories from a hike I took with my sister about six months ago. I remember all this stuff because with each step, there was something unique to find. A fantastic view, a sharp cluster of boulders I had to carefully navigate down … a lot! It was all different and unique in its own way, and therefor memorable.

In other words, parts of the trail popped, and so I recall them even now. Each bit was a unique moment along my journey.

Do we want same experience to be replicated in our books? Yes. Yes we do.

Okay then, so we’ve talked a bit about what “pop” is and why it’s important, but the real million-dollar question is “How do we make a character pop?” Because it’s one thing to talk about it, but another to actually do it.

Furthermore, and making this harder still, a lot of people think of “pop” as a visual affair. Which is fair. But we’re here discussing writing, a non-visual medium. Movies, or animation, they can make their characters pop by giving them obvious visual flair. For example, animation usually makes it fairly straightforward to pick out a protagonist in a large scene because they’ll be better animated and more detailed than a lot of the secondary characters around them. Sometimes, if the budget is low enough, they’ll be the only ones moving. Or if you’re watching anime, they’ll be the ones wearing odd clothing and with colored hair.

But writing isn’t visual. Literature is the realm of the imagination. So how can we make a character pop if we don’t have visual cues to go off of? How can we make a character distinct and attention-grabbing, one that stands out to our audience, when our medium is reliant on words?

Well, for one, we give them character.

Okay, I want to talk about Axtara – Banking and Finance for a moment. Not as a shameless plug (though you should definitely read it if you like books about dragons), but because anyone who has read the book could very likely tell you, reader, why the titular protagonist “pops.” Or rather, they could tell you all about her, because she’s very distinctive. And yes, part of this comes from the fact that she is a dragon, and the text remembers that, so she deals with having wings and claws like most might hands or feet, but that’s not the bit that makes her pop that I wanted to focus on (though it is good). No, what makes her “pop,” first and foremost to the reader, is her elocution.

Axtara, as a character, is very precise and formal with her speech, and it stands out in her observation (narration) and when she talks with others. Her dialogue is so recognizable, in fact, that it’s often one of the first things that new readers note about her character. That she’s “prim and proper” with her diction and word choice, even compared to her more relaxed parents.

Which makes Axtara’s character pop. It makes her unique. It’s usually quite clear when she’s speaking as she uses words, terms, and phrases that are … Well, have you ever heard someone say “That sounds like something so-and-so would say?” Yeah, it’s that!

Diction, or how our characters speak, with what words they prefer to use, be that complicated or simple, and how verbose they are, is a great way to make characters pop. Because while visual mediums can use the image of a character to set up their pop, a work of writing is going to be built around narration and dialogue. So the more unique the voice of each character is, the more they pop when they’re in discussion.

A novel that uses this well? Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Each chapter of Ender’s Game starts with a small bit of just dialogue. No tags, no attributes. Just lines of characters speaking.

But which characters? At first, the reader won’t be certain. But, since each voice is distinct and unique, before long the reader will meet the characters having the discussion, and start realizing who is saying what in those opening moments. In turn, this opens up a facet of the story, an angle that, if the dialogue was tagged, would be a flat (and obvious) reveal. But instead, it relies on the reader connecting the dots between the two based on the voice of the two character, allowing the reader to unfold what is happening.

Ender’s Game is of course far from the only novel to do this. I’ve read plenty of books that have used the same trick, and in fact have even read a few where diction was the first clue that two characters were the one and the same. But Ender’s Game is a very “up front” example.

But other things can make our characters pop as well. A lot of writers are fond of quirks, whether physical or otherwise, that help “fix” a character in the reader’s mind. For example, if you’ve read a decent number of YA books, how many of them have the protagonist describe themselves as “awkwardly thin” or “taller than anyone I know” or “short plus some other defining physical feature?”

A lot of YA books do that. They’re establishing a physical “pop.” Something about the protagonist that is distinct and different from everyone around them for the reader to visualize. Don’t get me wrong, it can be used for other things in addition; a non-YA example would be Rand’s height and hair in The Wheel of Time indication that he’s adopted. But often with YA books, you’ll see this sort of “here’s my uniqueness” bit pop up so that the reader gets a bit of ‘Hey, here’s what sets this character apart from the cast I’m imagining.”

Okay, it’s a little unfair to pick on YA because most books tend to describe their protagonists. But YA books in particular have a tendency to do it in a way that is deliberately “Look how I’m different” because it appeals to the audience and makes for a good pop, so it’s not unwarranted.

Granted, when it’s overdone or comes off as trying to pop too hard, we tend to take notice, such as when a book has a protagonist focus on how “different” they are as opposed to just noting “Hey, I’m short, my best friend is tall, and it’s always been that way. We make it work.”

But physical quirks can be a good way to get a character to pop. Though I’ll extend another caution in addition to trying too hard as mentioned above. A good quirk is one you use. If a character is tall, for example, make it come up from time to time. Have them duck to avoid hitting their head on a low door, or hit their head, or be able to reach something someone else was having a tough time with. You don’t have to draw overt attention to it in order for it to be effective reinforcing the “pop,” though you can if you feel it’s needed.

Non-physical quirks can be another way to make a character “pop” for a reader. Like an accent, though that runs into diction and word choice, or something like a nervous or relaxed tic. Hiccups whenever they’re stressed, or … sands, I don’t know. But you get the idea. We can give our character’s something that’s them, that they do. Sarcastic comebacks to obvious statements, favorite foods.

At which point, some of you might be saying “Wait, you said similar before when talking about giving characters depth.” You’re right, I did. Because when something pops out at you, it means it has dimension. In other words, if we build and develop our characters to be three dimensional, to have depth, then they’ll pop out at the reader.

There is a bit of a difference in simply giving a character depth and making them pop, however. See, depth can happen, as well as grow and develop, over time. But “pop” is what draws the readers attention early on, the first thing or things that gives this character their depth and sets them apart from the others.

So it’s not just as simple as saying “Okay, what depth do I want to give this character? What attributes and unique quirks?” Because those can come and go over the course of a book.

So pop isn’t the same as just “give a character depth.” Thinking about what makes a character pop means thinking about what depth to show the reader first that they’ll connect with.

Again, look at YA. A lot of YA books hit the “I’m so tall” or “so awkward” or other angles very quickly because the target audience is teenagers going through the same thing. It’s something that not only pops, but relates with a wide array of the audience and brings them to quickly sympathize with the protagonist. In Axtara, one of the “pops” in the very first chapter is how excited the protagonist is to be moving out on her own, something a lot of teens dream about and fear at the same time (and that fear is touched upon as well).

See? It’s not enough to just say “I’ve developed this character.” The “pop” you choose to show first can draw readers in, and therefore you should think about what you want that pop to be. What do you want your reader to notice first about your character that’s unique? Or rather, what do you want to display to the reader that’s going to be unique and catch their attention.

You could think of this as similar to an opening hook, which is designed to catch the reader’s attention and invest them in the story. Similar, but not the same. The opening of Shadow of an Empire, for example, has as a story hook that there’s a character hunting a man through the desert, and he’s getting close. Why is he hunting him, what did he do, and what will happen in a page or two when he catches up? Well, from the look of things a fight. Better keep reading!

But the character pop is in the opening paragraph, noting that the man who is doing the hunting has some sort of “gift” that means he’s not at all bothered by the heat of the sun, and instead seems to be drawing power from it. Attention getting … and a lot like a hook!

So yes, the two are very similar. Your hook is going to tell the prospective reader to keep turning the pages. And the character pop you lead with? It’s going to identify a bit about the character, setting up something unique and distinct, as well as signal “Hey, there might be more unique character stuff to come! Keep reading!”

So yes, it’s not just enough to say “Hey, here’s what pops, have my list.” No, work out what “pops” about your character, but then you also need to think about when you’ll present it and how. Don’t just dump it on your reader, but don’t blindly think you can just drop your “pop” anywhere. What do you want the reader to know about your character first? What should be the first “pop” that comes up in the book? With Axtara, it was her dialog and narration. Even before the story makes it clear that she is a dragon, and not human, her internal narration as well as the text of the opening paragraph, is written in a very distinct style that is hers, and hers alone. It’s her “pop,” and the first thing the reader gets.

With Shadow of an Empire, the pop is that Salitore has magic of some kind. What, the reader must read on to know, but there’s clearly some sort of magic at work.

I could go on, but I think those two examples make things pretty clear. Don’t just “dump” your character pop on the reader. Think about what should come first. Weigh it out. What works with the story hook? What do you really want to get across first? Does the story hook aid that, or fight against it? Maybe another hook would work better? Or maybe another pop?

I know this all sounds rather complicated, but … don’t worry too much. This is one of those things that more of it you do, the more it will become second nature. You’ll think about how to start your next story, how to frame things and pull your audience in, and you’ll piece together a lot of this almost reflexively, because it’ll become second nature!

So, let’s recap. Character “pop” is something that sets a character apart, makes them unique and memorable from everyone or everything else. Dialogue, narration, a tic, a habit, an attribute … it can be a lot of things, but it’s something about a character. We call it “pop” because it demonstrates a bit of depth past the flat, but also because it “pops up” very early, serving as a companion to the story hook as a promise of future character depth and development. And the two often go hand in hand—and should—as a story opens, usually designed to appeal to the audience in some way.

The nice thing? The more experience you have working with character pop, the more second-nature it, and working it into your story, will become.

So good luck. Now get writing.

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Making Characters “Pop”

  1. A favorite example of this in my own usage is a character I created long ago for a story. He was a middle-aged man, large and quiet. Which was nothing substantial by itself. He had two things that I used to give him a distinction from those around him. The first was how he always had a couple bags of dark chocolates on his person, which he ate periodically and more frequently when he was anxious – this being his answer to having quit smoking. The second was his golden retriever, who he often spoke to as if the dog could understand every word he said, even if others were around to hear it (the dog was intended to serve as a secondary protagonist). There was a lot more to him than that, but those were the standout elements for me. I never got far in the story and have little expectation of ever going back to it, but that character has always come back to me, even twenty years later.

    There’s another trick I like to use, albeit only rarely because I don’t want it to be obvious: every once in a while, I’ll write a character who won’t use contractions in their speech. This is usually done to indicate a more elite, stiff, or ‘proper’ character.


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