For much of my writing life, I’ve been focused on creating lifelike characters—the kind of people who seemed ready to leap off the page, living and breathing and infinitely human. I spent a long time thinking that the key to creating these vivid, lifelike characters was to make them balanced and avoid extremes. Regular people are complex, and often boring, and making them too odd just loses that edge of reality, right?
And then, about a year and a half ago, I read a marvelously fun nonfiction book called Pirate Hunters—the true story of a group of salvage divers trying to find the ship of one of history’s most notorious pirates. And as I read that book, it started to change my opinion. The protagonist of that book—John Chatterton—is a passionate person who has single-mindedly pursued the things he’s interested in throughout his life, pulling his crew through difficult searches and seemingly impossible wild-goose-chases with sheer force of will. As I read about him, suddenly I realized:
Often, people really can be distilled down into a few sentences—and often, having a good grasp on a character’s defining characteristics is what makes them compelling and realistic.
Every person runs deep in ways that take a long acquaintance—or the length of a novel—to plumb. But most people have quirks, interests, obsessions, or mannerisms that dominate their personalities, too. I’m writing this post over Thanksgiving weekend, right after two long-awaited TV shows have dropped: The first part of PBS’s new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, and Netflix’s Gilmore Girls revival. As I’ve begun both of these, I’ve been struck by how well the characters in both these shows embody this principle:
Anne Shirley, one of literature’s most iconic and enduring heroines, epitomizes “quirk.” A dreamy and precocious child, she talks incessantly, uses words longer than she is, and frequently gets into embarrassing “scrapes” as a result of her flighty imagination. And while Anne mellows out a little as she grows older, these defining characteristics stick with her, making her as enjoyable to read about as an adult as when she was a twelve-year-old orphan determined to sleep in a flowering cherry tree if her adoptive family hadn’t come to the train station before nightfall. There’s a lot of depth to Anne; she’s a firm friend, a loving mother, a young adult whose wisdom is laced through with whimsy. But the things that make Anne the most memorable, the things that have made her go down in time in one of history’s most beloved characters, are the characteristics that are easily distilled and feel almost too exaggerated to be real.
Likewise, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore are nothing if not quirky: Obsessed with coffee, junk food, trashy TV, and obscure pop culture references, the entire show is founded upon the principle of slightly batty characters interacting with one another in hilarious ways. Like Anne, there’s depth to the Gilmore girls that takes more than an episode or two to plumb; but, like Anne, it’s the surface-level idiosyncracies—Lorelai’s frantic shouts of “Coffeecoffeecoffee!”, for instance—that linger with the viewer long after the TV’s shut off.
The more I’ve thought about this principle over the last year and a half, the more I’ve noticed how true it is for successful books of all stripes. There’s Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings, to whom cooking and caretaking are so fundamental that he brings spices and dishes on a journey into the heart of the villain’s territory, just so that he and Frodo can eat well while they travel. There’s Willow Chance, heroine of the bestselling middle-grade novel Counting By 7s, who’s equally obsessed with horticultural science and medical pathology. There’s Katniss Everdeen, whose stubborn loyalty to her family drives the entirety of the Hunger Games trilogy. There’s Hermione Granger, whose intelligence and drive help in large part to fuel Harry Potter’s successful quest to defeat Voldemort.
All of these characters are complex and realistic, and all of them tap into something different that resonates with us as we read about them—but all of them also embrace their quirks and defining personality traits without shame, and ultimately become all the more realistic for it. What I’ve come to realize as I’ve studied this is that even in real life, most of us can be summed up quickly: In my family, I’m the writer, dreamer, and emotionally-driven one, while my husband is the logical, analytical computer programmer. My preschool-age daughter is a spirited and strong-willed storyteller. All of us are complex, often contradictory, but those are the things that define us most deeply in our day-to-day lives.
So, as you craft your characters and strive to create the kind of people who will leap off the page and linger in your readers’ imaginations long after the book has closed, give yourself permission to go a little wild. Give your character layers and depth, but don’t be afraid to give them defining characteristics, too—and let those defining characteristics be as weird and wild as you like. Let your character’s freak flag fly for all the world to see! I guarantee that the world will only love them better for it.
Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.
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