How to Be Unique

How to Be Unique

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.

Only not.

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?

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Bill Honnold says:

    James,
    Am I imagining things, or is there a connection between this article and Lesson 2 in the DFW course (How to Find Your Writing Voice)?
    If you can take your writing voice and blend it with your unique experiences, you’ll crank out writing that is genuinely you.
    Great article, James.

    • There are all kinds of connections, for sure, and I’m glad you spot them… means you’ve been paying attention! I’ll admit, though, that I didn’t have that lesson in mind when I wrote this post – good catch!

  2. How the hell do you manage to make our work better, easier, and more enjoyable?

  3. Very interesting read, James. And you’re right—every writer is as unique as a fingerprint, and their writing is as unique as everything else because of who they are and their experiences. I like your comparison to Erin Hunter. I haven’t read that series, but your explanation is clear, and I know what you mean. You can imitate another writer’s voice (or try to keep it a certain way and stick with certain facts), but you can’t duplicate it exactly even if you use the same vocabulary and facts because spoken intonation is different and so many other things in our speech and what goes on in our mental voice that comes out in writing. Plus experiences that inform the writing…

    And if something we write sounds a little bit like someone else or another character? Not a big deal because it won’t be exact. Everyone “sounds” like someone else to an extent. How many romances have been written that sound like Cinderella? How many feature a woman and two men: one a dashing rake and the other more solid and grounded? Then all the archetypes and tragic heroes and whatnot. But they’re all unique even if they follow or spring up from common human experience.

    Even the Twilight characters follow some patterns. The two men, for starters (Meyer’s The Host is the same). But also the “antinomian” thing in American literature is present in both: outcasts/renegades/misfits collaborate to form their own society or “nomos” (think One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest). That’s about the “known” you mention from which the new is created–stuff in the collective unconscious or what we know as a society/culture. But each story is unique.

    I say we should write what comes to us and not worry about it and that’s that, as you say. Thanks for getting me thinking on this stuff, what with NaNoWriMo a month way!

  4. Thanks James. I used to struggle with trying to be unique, but as you say, I’m that already. This is a great and timely reminder.
    Thanks!

  5. Talk about unique!

    Someone sent me a link to the Unorthodoc webpage (http://unorthodoc.com/) and I have to say that I am impressed beyond words. Great positioning, great copy, and great site design. Congrats!

    We talk about “positioning” or “branding”all the time, but rarely do you see someone take an industry’s weakness and exploit it so well.

    Don’t know how they’ll do in the long run, but I like their angle and their attitude.

    This is a great example of “hitting them where they ain’t” as hall of fame baseball coach, Casey Stengel used to say.

  6. Obviously in the sense of your own style of writing, even a topic that’s been covered plenty of times before will still be unique with your own individual input.

    This doesn’t mean to say that you can’t make a particular topic exciting, engaging or sharable either, essentially your own style will always come through. Furthermore, people will always view your work in a completely different way to how you expect them to because they are drawing on their own life experiences. I think it comes down to how you write about a particular topic, as opposed to simply being unique.

  7. Hi James. Very thought provoking ideas in your excellent article.

    I agree that we come to the writing table with many unique life perspectives. We project these onto our characters, whether we realize it or not.

    One of the best techniques I’ve seen involves interviewing your characters. Create an interview sheet with a list of questions for him/her. Favorite food, color, drink, entertainment, tics, habits, etc. Then keep these sheets at the ready as you are writing, so you don’t go off the beaten path of what you have in mind for them.

    BTW, I love the http://unorthodoc.com website. Very unique!

  8. Hey James

    Hey James

    I’m not a writer of fiction, or even a freelance writer but I agree with you 100% when you say no one can create the sort of work that you create, everyone has their own style, experiences and outlook on the world ( or certain issues) and this is what makes things interesting.

    I for one work in the online marketing field and “good writing” or “well written” means a fairly different things than when compared to an author for instance. For example writing for a blog or website is nothing like writing a fictional novel, there tends to be less expressive language for example as well as the need to get straight to the point.

    When someone reads a blog post or website they are searching for information, they tend to scan and skim read. This isn’t usually the case for a novel or story.

    Even when it comes to something like SEO ( which is not often though of as “creative”) every good marketer will have their own view of overall usefulness of it as a marketing strategy and novel ways to apply it.

    Your particular way of seeing and explaining things may touch someone in a way that someone else could never do, that’s why I think it’s important to staying true to yourself. Your perspective matters and you shouldn’t dilute it by trying to be someone else .

    People notice this sort of detail and just like you said, if someone is trying to copy someone’s “unique” style or character it usually becomes obvious. For the most part there is nothing truly original, but that does not stop certain blog posts, books or characters really standing out to people, while others are quickly forgotten.

    Thanks for the well written article it was both thought provoking and actionable.

    Paul Back

Trackbacks

  1. […] How to be unique by @menwithpens – Written with fiction writers in mind – all about getting past the “it’s all been done before” demons. […]

  2. […] James Chartrand over at Men with Pens has a great point of view about why what you write will always be unique, and why at the same time it will always be influenced by the work of other people. […]

  3. […] But don’t take my word for it, listen to what James Chartrand has to say on the subject of being unique. And then quit searching and just get on and do your […]

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