Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Revisiting: Making Your Super Characters Extraordinary

Dude. I feel horrible that I haven't posted in so long. Like every day nearly I've said, "Tomorrow I will post." But I'm still stretched pretty thin.  (Although, blogging is the goal first thing tomorrow, like as soon as I get home, which might not happen until about 9 PM since Wednesday are pretty much chock-full-o-nuts days for me, but IT WILL HAPPEN--I'm freaking stubborn.) And at the moment, I seriously have to get to sleep. I have to be up in just a few hours, but this is weighing on me, the not posting. So, for today, I'm going to do something I've never done before.  I'm reposting one of my more popular posts from a long time ago. Hope that's okay.

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). 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’ Carol.


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 with 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 (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. Awwwww "boring ol" Carol is anything but!!

    Great points to remember for making your characters stand out and proud - but believable too! thank you Amazing Carol! Take care

  2. I agree - it's all about depth and surprising the reader - not the shiny stuff on the outside!

  3. Thanks for re-posting this. I wasn't following you when it was first posted. It's so true about characters.

    And you can only do what you can do. I'm struggling too right now with a too hectic schedule.

  4. Loved this when you first posted it, and love it now. Just reading through it has sparked some new things for the characters in my WIP. <3

  5. It's good to repost! I missed this the first time around! Great info, C! Hope you get through your Wed:)xo

  6. Loved it then and such thing as too much Cool Girl.

    And a re-post of this is just what I needed since I'm in re-write mode with a YA novel in which I really really really need up the emotional stakes between my characters.

    I wanted to just slap a cape or belt on them.
    DANG it.

    I guess I'll have to work harder...

  7. Excellent checklist! And I like your costume.

  8. Look how cute you are! And hey, that's an awesome checklist! Love the "unexpected" part. That always gets me. :o) <3

  9. Okay. Cool Girl rocks, and so do her glasses. :)

    Thanks for this post, Carol. It's been a great reminder of ways to create genuine, 3-D characters.

  10. Great post. Welcome back. Drawing well defined characters takes a lot of thought... By the way, boring Carol looks pretty super, too ;-)

  11. I'm so glad you posted these. I'm wrestling with a character right now that herself is wrestling with some pretty big guilt issues. Note the emphasis is on the her. I am not a woman (???) and as such, getting inside a woman's mind is incredibly difficult. No amount of reading Kathy Lette, Candice Bushnell or that chick who wrote Eat Pray Love is gonna get me any closer to understanding the cogs and springs...but somehow Cee, you've given me some fantabulous simple concepts that strip away everything but character. I think I'm gonna lick this...

    ...or a spoon with Nutella on it...haven't decided which yet.


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