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Creating unique and relatable characters

Creating unique and relatable characters Creating unique and relatable characters
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    Often, when authors are looking to create a character their readers will love, they go for relatability: making a character who the imagined reader will find familiar. Someone just like them, with similar life experiences, tastes, and opinions, who watches the same shows, shops at the same stores, and likes the same bands. While this can work for a quick hit of identification, it’s rarely enough to sustain reader investment, because this kind of character is ultimately a blank slate.

    Creating a character that is easy for the reader to project themselves onto is appealing at first glance because it offers the readers a risk-free intimacy of immediate identification. If the goal of the writing is for the reader to see themselves in a character, this seems like an easy way to do it. The problem here is twofold: if the references anchoring the character go away or become dated, the character’s specificity effectively disappears. On a deeper level, this type of characterization never allows the reader to actually get to know the character and to form a deep investment in their specific struggles. If a character only exists to be a mirror to the assumed reader, the story will always struggle to feel one-dimensional. It’s hard for this kind of character to fully come to life within the story, because they are constrained by the need to be as “relatable” as possible, and thus as nonspecific as possible. And stories, above all, call for specificity. 

    There are no universally relatable actions, desires, preferences, or motivations, but human emotions like joy, fear, shame, and anger are universal. You can create a more durable investment in your main character by bringing the reader into the specific world of the main character’s emotions.  Instead of offering your main character as a place for your reader to project themselves into, consider thinking of your main character as someone the reader can walk with on their journey. It’s a paradox of human experience that those big universal emotions are actually best evoked through specificity, which creates empathy and identification on a deeper level. Think about it: you have a deeper level of trust and investment with a friend whose personal history and flaws you know and understand than you do with a friend who you only talk about TV shows with. We want to get to that deeper level with characters so that they become more fully formed in the reader’s mind in order to create the emotional investment that will sustain the story.  

    Creating a specific character has two components: investing your characters with idiosyncrasies, likes, dislikes, contradictions, personal history, and flaws that make them feel unique, and using the conflict of the story to dramatize the process of personal change. 

    Your main characters and your side characters are going to have differing levels of specificity, and that’s ok. We want the most detail about the character the story is about. Your characters don’t have to be hyper-specific from the jump. You can start with a vague outline and fill it in. Our character worksheet can help if you’re looking to deepen your characters. 


    This exercise comes from Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses, who adapted it from Danzy Senna. 

    In five minutes, write as many sentences as you can about the same character using the following construction:

    She/he/they was the type of person who_____

    E.g."She was the type of person who went to the bowling alley every Friday, but never bowled."

    Push past the obvious and easy. If it's still easy after five minutes, go for ten.

    The point of this exercise is to think about your character as a dynamic being and to explore some of the dimensions of their personality that you may not have thought of before. 

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