Just like every real-life person is unique, you should make your characters unique, too. Generic, stereotypical characters feel no more special to your reader than a stranger sitting across from us on the train. Stereotypes can even alienate or offend your readers.
On the flip side, we all know how it feels to learn something new and unexpected about a friend. Give your readers that same feeling. When you add unique habits and quirks informed by your characters’ backstories, they become more than just words on a page. They become human.
Here are a few ways to take your characters beyond the generic.
Fidgets make your characters unique
Think about your weird fidgets, or those you’ve noticed in others. I chew a specific spot on the inside of my lower lip, especially when I’m driving long distances. One of my teenage characters braids and unbraids a tiny section of her hair during unpleasant conversations.
Fidgets can be funny, weird, or barely-there. Just use them sparingly. Overdoing it will have the same effect as that person who clicks their pen nonstop in every meeting: it’ll distract the reader and drive them crazy. Most fidgets only bear mentioning once or twice in an entire book, unless their prevalence is going to be part of the action (e.g. another character screaming, “stop clicking that damn pen!”).
Each character will notice something different in a scene
Look around your scene through your main character’s eyes. What would she notice? Would she run her hands over the piano in the corner, or would she comment on the rug?
I’m always amazed at what my husband doesn’t notice at parties. He feels the same way about me. When we meet someone new together, we remember two very different sets of information about that person afterward. Everyone has their own lens to look at the world.
If you have multiple POVs in your story, this gives you a chance to describe one event or detail from multiple perspectives. For example, two of my characters observed the same gallery wall of photos in a friend’s home. One admired and even envied it because her family didn’t display family photos at all. The other looked down her nose at it because she thought it sugar-coated a dysfunctional family. The way your characters react to their surroundings should feel genuine and unique. These reactions reflect who they are and how they see the world.
Your characters’ backstories give them their quirks
By the later drafts, we know a lot more backstory about our characters than will ever show up on the page. However, this hidden knowledge informs our characters’ behavior, motives, and reactions.
For example: Many of us have grandparents who grew up during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Ever notice how they don’t throw anything away? As the saying goes, waste not, want not. A character who lost a close friend to a car accident in high school might experience significant anxiety when her own teenage child gets his learner’s permit, even if she’s usually pretty laid back. There are many facts you might know about your characters but leave off the page because they aren’t part of the story. They still contribute to the person your character is on the page and how they react to what life throws at them.
Observation is your best writing resource
Think about yourself, your spouse, your friends and family. What weird quirks make all of you unique? Keeping a notebook to record your observations everywhere from Thanksgiving dinner to the city bus will help increase your awareness of these quirks.
Your observations don’t have to be groundbreaking or deep. They can be completely inconsequential. The fact that my grandmother says “ivy poison” instead of “poison ivy” makes her different from other people I know. My friends often make fun of me because I don’t know how to drink from a glass that has ice in it (this also means I drink cocktails through the stirring straw when I’m at a bar — I recently got a drink with a bamboo stirrer and didn’t know how to deal). Trying too hard to make your characters weird and different will make them less believable. Most of our quirks are barely noticeable, but they’re there all the same.
Quirks break stereotypes and make characters three-dimensional
When you’re filling out your characters, make sure you’re identifying funny little quirks and tidbits of backstory that make them unique — not a stereotype. Be especially careful when writing women, people of color, LGBT folks, and other traditionally marginalized characters. These groups all have common stereotypical traits attached to them, but in reality, they’re individuals. One of our jobs as fiction writers is to give the world more examples of that diversity.
More than making your story work in 2018’s political and social climate, these quirks will make your characters seem like real people — people your readers will enjoy getting to know and care about over the course of your book. Remember, there aren’t a lot of original plot ideas out there. Your unique cast of characters will make your story stand out.