Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Making Your Super Characters Extraordinary

At dinner, over a discussion of Superman, my cousin’s wife brought up the notion of changing her hair color to hide her superhero identity (actually, first she said that Brandon Routh did not honor the suit—I think because he was too skinny; it’s a valid argument, but not the one I’m making here, so…). Then I got to thinking what my superhero self would look like. I think I might do something with my hair. Maybe wear something shiny like any self-respecting superhero. And glasses. Can’t forget the glasses. Because glasses help to hide who you really are. And since I wear contact lenses most of the time, my superhero self would have to have glasses.
So here I am, in my everyday disguise. Boring ol’ Carolina.
And here I am in full superhero splendor. Meet me, AKA Cool Girl.

No, seriously. That’s me!! It’s crazy how little it takes to make yourself into someone else entirely. Look at Miley Cyrus. I bet it blew your mind when you found out she was really Hannah Montana with a wig on. And Lady Gaga? NEWS ALERT: She’s not always a superhero. Sometimes, she wears non-shiny clothes.
Unfortunately, you can’t slap a cape on an ordinary fictional character and make them extraordinary. If you’re struggling to make your characters more appealing (especially in UF/SFF/Paranormal), it may be because you’re only making your character extraordinary on the surface. You have to dig deeper than that. Can’t just give your characters a cool ability/job/location and expect that to do the trick.
Let’s face it, it wasn’t the shiny boots and tights that made Superman so fabulous. It wasn’t even because he was so super. Not really. It's just his real life personality was so impossibly different from Superman’s personality. He lived out the fantasy that so many of us have—to be able to put on a cape and become way cooler than we are (I may look like a nerd, but you should see me in tights).
So what can you do to make your characters extraordinary?
1. First and foremost, your characters must have DEPTH. This means that your characters MUST HAVE:
A. Motivations. You don't act without motivation. (You might think you do, but you don't. All acts stem from some motivation, whether conscious or unconconscious, so it should be the same for your characters.) So even if your characters don't know why they act the way they do, YOU SHOULD.
B. Human qualities we all have. Things like dreams, hatreds, desires, goals, weaknesses, strengths, longings, secrets, embarrassments...without these qualities, we become robotic and boring. So do your characters.
C. Emotions. Layers of them. And their emotions should correspond to their personalities. Some people might cry at funerals, others laugh uncontrollably. Bring in the prostitute mourner in the red dress, and watch the tears dry up, and the sense of awe/embarrassment/shock/discomfort/anger/confusion take over.
D. Internal Conflict. If Peter Parker hadn't worried as much about what might have happened to Mary Jane Watson (movies, not comic books), he probably wouldn't have turned her away and limited himself only to spidey kisses hanging upside down. He was so torn--wanting revenge for his murdered uncle, feeling guilty it might've been his fault, his love for Mary Jane which has to go unfulfilled, and the many issues he has with the supervillains (just the issues with the Green Goblin and his son alone could drive a therapist mad).
2. Second, you must latch on to the unexpected…
A. …in the characters' personalities and subsequent actions. Nobody ever expected vampires to fall in love with humans—or to go to high school. Nobody expected Forrest Gump to go to college or to win International ping pong tournaments or to inspire a nation. And nobody expected Superman would be some shy, nerdy journalist. Audiences can’t wait to see what unexpected things such unexpected characters will get up to.
B. …in the characters’ motivations. In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, nobody expected that Tiny Cooper, best-friend-of-Will Grayson/gay-football-player’s greatest motivation in life would be to find love and let his light shine through the most fabulous high school musical the world has ever seen.
C. the characters' human qualities. A secret doesn't have to be big to feel HUGE. Not if it's unexpected. Say a boy carries around a rock in his pocket with a face drawn on it, yarn for hair. It's name is Albert. Occasionally, he pets it when he gets nervous. At home, he sets it on his nightstand and talks to it. But it's his secret. He'll never tell anyone about it. No one would make fun of him, especially because his mom just died, but to him, it'd be humiliating. He's fifteen.
D. the characters' emotions. Have you seen HANCOCK? The depressed superhero? Yeah. Unexpected.
E the characters' internal conflict. What could be more unexpected than a vampire fretting over having sex with his human girlfriend because he might get too excited and drink her blood and kill her? Seriously. Nothing. Totally UNEXPECTED.

Caveat: Make the unexpected believable. Or make it so freaking awesome that your audience will gladly abandon reason and force themselves to buy it.
These are just some ways to make your characters worthy of kickass plots. I bet you have some tricks, too.


  1. That all sounds like an awful lot of work. What if I just give them two superpowers instead of one?

    You bring up a lot of awesome points though. I like to study people. It's been a hobby of mine as long as I can remember. Once you know them inside-out you can use that knowledge to manipulate them for good or evil. I think you have to be able to do the same thing with a fictional character. You have to completely understand who that person is if you want them to feel authentic (and eventually do your evil bidding). After all, as writers, manipulating people is what we do, we just do it with imaginary people in our rather twisted minds.

  2. Brilliant!! *fist pumping in the air in the kitchen of this little apartment I'm living in right now, as I'm working on my new wip whilst dressed in my pink, purple spotted 'Pink' boxer shorts and my Lady Gaga Tee-Sh...*

    ...was that...too much information??

    I am saving this article and I am going to print it out so's I can put it on my wall and refer to it each time I get into difficulty with characterization.

    I love to try and look for the unexpected in my characters. It is most certainly the more challenging path to take and it often helps to flesh out more conventional character traits in an individual. Right now, I am grappling with themes of racism and it's application to certain characters. In the process I am making some interesting and quite unexpected discoveries.

    This is yet again, another great article Cee!

    And may I say...

    Nice glasses!

  3. Lots of food for thought here. Doing a mental checklist for my characters...

    And, okay, I read 'boots' as 'boobs' above, and I was all, "when did Superman have sex reassignment surgery, and how did I not know he had that secret?" Someone should write THAT story. Or maybe I shouldn't read blogs before coffee.

  4. Ooh, I could hug you right now. I've been spinning my wheels trying to find a fresh direction for my new WIP. Although I know all the things you just mentioned, apparently I needed someone else to tell me again. Merci!!

  5. Great post! Depth is so important and doesn't come without hard work. nice pictures too!

  6. It's so hard to dig down deep. Thanks for offering some tools to make it easier.

  7. LOVE this post. My favorite part of writing is developing characters and you've provided us with some very helpful tips and reminders. Thank you!

  8. Awesome post. I write YA Contemporary but I was still able to use these ideas in my current work in progress! I copied the bulleted points over to my character interview sheet and answered how my protag filled these requirements and it really helped. Thanks for the writing prompts this morning :-)

  9. Is that really you?!?! Never!! Amazing what a pair of glasses could do!! :-)

    Thank you so much for these very helpful guidelines on making your characters (supernatural/superhuman/super-duper!!)as four dimensional as possible!!! Yay!!! We are talking DEPTH!!!!

    Take care

  10. This is a great post, Carol. Especially the part about the unexpected. *rushes off to see if that happens in wip*

  11. This was so great. I'm bookmarking it so I can make sure I've dug deep enough during revisions.

    Also, I would never have known the second photo was you if you didn't say so. Must be the glasses. Tricksy.

  12. Excellent reminders, Cool Girl, especially the motivation and unexpected.
    When I was growing up, my mom said she used to be Wonder Woman but had to give up the title because she got married. I believed her for a while...Then again, she also told me I was a monkey they adopted from the zoo. (and I believed that for a while). My mom amused herself in very odd ways. (but seriously other than the blatant lies, she was and is an awesome mom :).

  13. Well said, good lady! It is, indeed, all about the unexpected.

    Also, will you wear your superhero(ine) costume to the next Con. I see you at? That'd be awesome.

    Thanks for making me laugh AND think. Imagine that. Talk about unexpected. A Cool Girl who is also SMART? Just please tell me you don't sparkle or I might explode with jealousy.

  15. My goal is to make ordinary people, with no super-powers or abilities, demonstrate how they can be just as heroic as characters in comic books or movies. In turn I want my readers to see themselves in my characters. I utilize many of the hints you mention here.

    Excellent post!

  16. ...were you awak when you posted this? Because if so, when do you actually sleep? Clearly not when it's, like, sleep time.
    *shakes head in disapproval*
    for reals, though, this was a great post. It deserves a google reader star

  17. I swear you're a genius Carol. Now come up with a superhero identity around that;)

    But seriously, I just had an "Aha" moment while reading this. THANK YOU!!! Mwah!

  18. Great post Carol! And yes, I think Depth and the unexpected are totally key!

  19. Layers, like an onion...or a parfait. (Lola says in Donkey voice) A good story and characters need lots of layers and depth, indeed.

    Wow, I didn't even recognize you in your superhero costume. ;)

    You know my favorite superhero?? HitGirl. She's badass.


  20. Wow, I totally didn't recognize you AT ALL in the second picture. Okay, not really. But I love this post. Great words of wisdom!! I need to go through and make sure all of my characters do all of these things.

  21. That sounds like a lot of thinking, Carol. :wink: Although, it would be a great superpower to alter your appearance to protect your identity. A 2 for 1. Now you see me, now you don't. What do you think? Of course, you would need at least one other superpower to move your story along.

  22. Cool Girl is very cool. ;)
    And aww, I loved Hancock. Superheroes are the best.

  23. Brilliant! Love it! Bookmarked it! :-)

  24. What great comments about characterization! The more facets we add to our characters, the greater the depth. Depth helps readers commiserate with our MC and minor characters. Great post!

  25. I love you superhero self! The blue streak of hair was inspired. I think I'd wear a cape with a hood and an electric blue satin lining. Seriously, I've been talking about that idea for years and years.

    Great tips on creating believeable characters.


  26. The Amateur, I wasn't sure how to reply since I didn't find a blog for you and couldn't find your email! Hope you see this! But I wanted to say thank you for your comment! I think those jazz hands will get you super far in life, especially with a light saber to back them up. Gotta have the muscle to go with the flash. Thanks for your kind words!

  27. Amazing post! I am in revisions wrestling with my characters and this will really help. Thank you!

    Has Cool Girl considered gold teeth? They would go with her outfit and she could take a bite out, wait, Macgruff is already on that beat.

  28. Love Christopher's comment. Two powers I can handle. All this other stuff? Yikes.

    But GREAT post! I really need to get this character thing down.

  29. This is a FANTASTIC post! Found it through Stina's blog--awesome! Thanks!

  30. I totally just bookmarked this post. I need to consider all of this (not that I haven't already started on some of it) before I write too much more. Thanks!

  31. Loving the pictures. What a great read. Thanks for sharing the information on Characters, always something to learn. THank you x

  32. Found your blog through a link on Linda Gerber's blog & I'm so glad I did! Wonderful post! Correction though - Meyer wasn't the first to have a vampire worry about killing his human girlfriend during sex. Angel & Buffy did it first! :-)


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