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How many people want to hear the story of a pretty, blonde high school cheerleader who’s popular and dating the most popular guy in school? Sounds cliché, doesn’t it?
There are reasons that stereotypes exist (when I visited the Louvre in Paris, I followed a group of Asian tourists through the museum – I now understand why Asian tourists always have cameras with them in movies). Those stereotypes can work for some of your secondary characters, but your main characters have to stand out, otherwise they’ll blend in with all of the other characters people read.
So how do you create characters your readers will remember?
Give your character a quirk. Not a dozen quirks (otherwise your character can become stereotypically quirky), but that one thing that makes him or her memorable. If your character didn’t have that quick, he/she will be just like everyone else.
Consider the high school cheerleader from the introduction – now imagine that she’s a vampire slayer. Suddenly Buffy’s a lot more interesting! (The movie version, not the TV version.) It didn’t take a bucket of quirks to make her memorable; it just took one truly unique characteristic.
Think about some of fiction’s most memorable characters – what makes them stand out?
Captain Ahab started his career like every other sea captain, but then he lost his leg. Certainly other captains lost limbs and suffered injuries at sea, so what sets Ahab apart? His obsession with getting revenge on Moby Dick. If Ahab wasn’t obsessed, he’d be any other captain.
Harry Potter doesn’t seem like anything special either. He’s a young boy. He’s a wizard. But so are all of the other students at Hogwarts. His quirk? He has a lightning bolt scar on his forehead. In this case, Harry’s quirk was something that happened to him, but the impact is the same. If he didn’t have that scar, he’d be like every other young wizard.
And then there’s Spock (he’s not literary, but the same principle applies). If he were Vulcan or human, he might be like any other Starfleet officer. What makes him unique is his human-Vulcan lineage – the battle between logic and emotions. Straddling the border between two worlds is his struggle and his quirk.
It doesn’t take a lot to make your characters memorable. It just takes that one special trait.
Look at the characters you’ve written. What quirk can you add (or have you added) that makes them unique?