In case you weren’t aware, this website has a cool feature – it’s called Ask James Anything. (I think that’s fairly self-explanatory, but if you need to know more, click here and ask me.) I received a question from Suzie, and it revolved around uniqueness.
She said, “I’m doing my best with character creation but don’t feel a connection with anything that I make that isn’t recreation of another author’s character. Do you have any tips?”
Susie’s asking about fiction writing, but if you think about it, “How unique do you need to be?” is a question that can apply to all sorts of content creation. After all, how can you possibly create and write something different when everything has been said and done before?
Easily. By writing it.
Everything you create – from a fictional character to your latest blog post – will always unique. It can’t be otherwise. It’s virtually impossible to write something absolutely identical to someone else’s work when you write with your own unique perspective, life experience and knowledge.
Someone out there’s bound to debate this with me, but think about it: No one – no one on this planet – has lived exactly what you’ve lived, seen exactly what you’ve seen, or felt exactly what you’ve felt.
Everything you know – your entire existence – is exclusively unique.
You are unique.
Which means that anything you write will always be crafted using your uniqueness.
Allow me to talk strictly character creation from hereon out (Susie deserves a straight answer), but if you’re a blogger or a writer-for-hire or a business owner who needs to generate content for sales, you should keep reading. Just mentally interchange the word “character with “blog post” or “article” or “ebook”, and reap wisdom along the way.
Suzie, there’ll always be characters you love. You’ll have favorites you adore, like Locke Lamora or Jamie Fraser or Captain Jack Sparrow. You’ll love them so much you’ll secretly want your characters to be just as awesome – to be just like them.
Never fear: unless you’re the exact author who created these characters, you’ll actually have a damned difficult time coming up with a carbon copy version. Maybe your particular characterization of Jamie Fraser has just a touch too much temper, or your Cap’n Jack is just a little too whimsical.
You can’t copy someone else’s characters identically. Unless you are that author, of course.
Trust me on this one. Take Erin Hunter for example: she’s the author of the Warriors series, but in actual fact, she doesn’t exist.
Erin Hunter is the pen name taken on by several authors who created the Warriors series together.
These authors work with deliberate intention and vested interest in making the characters appear identical to readers at all times, despite their scenes and dialogue being written by completely different people. The Erin Hunter authors are so good at mimicking each other’s characters that you can’t really tell who wrote what… until you read several of the books.
Suddenly you notice something’s a little different with this character. You’re not sure what, though. Just a feeling. And in the next book, you can’t quite put your finger on it but this passage doesn’t quite sound like it should. And while this character in this book is pretty darned close to how he or she was in the last book… something’s not the same.
What, exactly? You can’t tell.
Until you realize that Erin Hunter is several different authors, and it all clicks into place.
Here’s something else that’s interesting: Let’s say you make a conscious, deliberate effort NOT to create a character like your favorite. You do everything possible to create the opposite – someone so unlike that character there’s no way anyone would even see the inkling of a resemblance.
That’s great!… until some reader says, “You know what? This guy sounds a lot like that crazy loonie in Silence of the Lambs. All that’s missing is him hissing about Chianti!”
Your deliberate intentions not to copy a character resulted in you coming darned close to another.
Here’s why this happens: Your brain is fabulous at being able to imagine all sorts of seemingly new and unique stuff. But it can’t possibly create something new without a foundation to jump off. Your brain needs something it can work with to get started.
Only from the known can the new be created.
That creepy subway guy you wrote into your mystery novel? You might have spotted him a year ago in a bus station – you just don’t remember it today. Your brain does, though, deep in its subconscious. That cool way your character spreads his wings and flies? Your brain took that from years of observing birds in the sky.
You, as the conscious author, add on to these jump-off points. Subway guy gets a shaved head and dark shadows under his eyes, plus an unsettling habit of fondling a lighter in his hand. Birdman gets his grin from a singer you know, and his possessiveness comes from an old jealous ex from way back when.
Your brain takes from here and there, adding little ingredients into the mix, and sprinkles it all with your unique perspective. You’ve taken what’s old, what’s known, what’s been done before… and made it completely fresh, different and new.
Here are some tricks to help build a character that really stands out and that isn’t too close to any single favorite someone else created:
Mix and match. Take bits and pieces from actors, singers, and people you know. His clothing style. Her haircut. His whistling. Her snappy attitude. His nasty habit. Her maternal instinct.
Put it all together, shake it all about, and voila – you have a new character no one has ever created before.
Make a movie in your mind. Instead of trying to get a firm grip of the sum total of your character from the get-go, build him or her in small increments by putting your character in short “movie” scenes you imagine.
Imagine your character in a crowded, loud bar. What expression is on his face? How about being woken up from a sound sleep? How does she react? Let’s say someone offers your character a drink – what will it be? If it’s a beer, why not cognac? There’s an important event – does he wear a tie or sneakers (or both)?
Your brain will, without a doubt, pull ideas from what you already know to create something brand new. Let it. Why fight what comes naturally?
Doing the opposite can be a fast path to disaster. Attempt to eliminate absolutely everything you’ve ever known, felt, seen and experienced from your brain in the attempts of creating something so spectacularly unique it’s utterly brand-new… and you’ll fail.
Your imagination just isn’t that powerful. Your brain has nothing to go on.
Here’s a last tip to keep in mind as you create your next character: human beings are incredibly biased. If we think that what we create, or think, or write, is similar to what’s been done before, our brains will work pretty darned hard to validate and confirm that belief. We want to be right, both consciously and subconsciously.
So if you think that your character resembles so-and-so’s character… then it will – at least, to you. You’ll look for similarities, no matter how small or inconsequential, and blow them out of proportion until you swear this character is exactly the same as another.
Can’t find any similarities? Your brain works even harder to find them. You’ve given it a mission: “I believe this character must be like that one.” With an instinctual need to validate your belief, your brain will look for anything that confirms it – even to the point of imagining what doesn’t exist.
Ask someone completely neutral and objective who has never heard of either character to compare them, and you’ll have a pleasant wake-up call. That individual will point out plenty of differences. Ones you never even noticed.
Now isn’t that nice?