I’m a HUGE Star Trek Voyager fan, and I’ve been watching the reruns on SpikeTV. I really like the character Seven of Nine.
For you non Star Trek fans, Seven is a human woman who was a Borg (mindless cyborg) for most of her life, but Captain Janeway rescued her from the Borg collective and is teaching her how to be an individual.
Much of her storyline is Seven learning to be a unique individual after being just like all the other mindless, unethical Borgs. Sometimes the situations she gets herself into are humorous, other times they are heartbreaking or bittersweet.
Seven is a good example of a character who already IS unique. She has two aspects her character that make her so unique:
(1) Her backstory as a Borg is already unusual
(2) her striving to become someone different gives the audience something to root for. Her goal of overcoming a complete LACK of individuality is a very different sort of character arc.
Seven’s example also teaches me, as a writer, to work harder to break out of the box when crafting my characters. My characters should also have an intriguing, unusual backstory, and then strive toward a personal goal.
Unique characters don’t have to be aggressive or outgoing. My favorite example of a unique literary character is Anne Elliot from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Anne is a very quiet character, yet she stands out from other characters:
(1) She has a strong emotional backstory. She turned down the one man she loved at the pressure of her family, and has regretted it ever since. What romance reader wouldn’t love a backstory like that?
(2) She has a strong personal goal in the story. The man she spurned returns and is attracted to another woman completely unlike herself—a woman of determined, headstrong opinions and playful willfulness. Yet Anne strives to remain true to her own personality, to not give in to despair. She doesn’t change who she was and she remains confident in her own sense of self-worth, despite the painful things that happen to her and her disagreeable family.
This sort of character might not work in today’s modern publishing industry, but Anne Elliot illustrates that a quiet character can still be unique and memorable, as long as she has those two elements.
I want to challenge you, as a writer, to look at your own characters and see if they’re unique and memorable. Think of your favorite characters from fiction—whether it’s Scarlett O’Hara or Stephanie Plum, James Bond or Hercule Poirot. Are your own characters as unique? Do they stand out from the pack?
Look at New York Times Bestsellers:
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen—the hero, Jacob, had lost his parents and walked out of his veterinary exams and joined a second-rate circus.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See—two women deepen their friendship over the years through the use of nu shu, a secret language among women, painted on a fan.
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards—a man secretly gives away his newborn daughter, who has Downs Syndrome, while keeping her healthy fraternal twin brother.
While not copying the story elements, try to capture the kind of color and vivacity of those characters in your own characters.
Utilize your critique partners and ask for hard, honest truth. Is your character really different? Does she have a unique backstory and a strong character goal for your story (while this wasn’t as necessary in older works of fiction, it’s strongly encouraged for debut novelists wanting to break into publishing now)?
What can you do to MAKE your characters more brilliant or defined? Maybe give them a deeper backstory? Maybe give them a more dire personal goal?
A truly unique character will make an agent or editor stand up and take notice from the query letter alone. With a little bit of intensive thought and brainstorming, you can make your own characters colorful and memorable.