The Character Dilemma: Unique vs. Relatable

I was reading an agent’s critique of an unpublished writer’s first page. One of the comments was, “The character reacts as you would expect. The character isn’t unique enough.” That got me thinking about characters and how the writer must balance their unique qualities with recognizable, relatable and common attributes.
Writers hear, “Be fresh! Be unique!” a lot. While your characters should never be cardboard cut-outs or overworked stereotypes, they can’t be too unique. What do I mean? I learned about the foibles of too much uniqueness first hand. I’ve written a memoir about my childhood experiences in a 1960s-era Shriner’s Hospital, called One Hand Clapping. From the age of 8 months, I’ve been able to use only one arm/hand–the result of polio. Pretty unique, huh?
Not so fast.
Writing Tip for Today:If your character is too different, it may be harder for the reader to relate. Perhaps this is where the old adage about main characters needing to be fairly young and good-looking came from. Those barriers are increasingly broken, yet if your character has two heads, it may take more skill to present that character as “every man.”
I suggest these guidelines:

  • Focus on Emotion. When you decide on characteristics that readers will relate to, stay in the emotional realm. I think readers will be more apt to sympathize with that two-headed character than with one who cannot feel or is whiny, self-pitying or a plain-old sociopath.
  • Zoom in on Body Language. Readers love a character with body language (including expressions) that are unique. Readers will stand for only so much sighing or eye rolling.
  • Keep Dialogue Finely Tuned. Resist stilted dialogue, nattering dialogue, information-loading dialogue.

Try This!
Go on a self-guided hunt for body language, emotion and dialogue. Sit in a public place for an hour (a coffee shop, library or mall) and observe people discretely. Jot down unusual things others do and say to get their reactions across. See if you can use any of it to bring your unique character to life.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “The Character Dilemma: Unique vs. Relatable

  1. I just discovered your blog this morning and can already tell that I will be visiting here quite often. Thanks so much for all of the excellent writing tips … jewels of wisdom for those of us just starting down this path. I am so thankful for people like you who are willing to share their expertise.

    Jan Marie

  2. Jan,
    Welcome! When I was a new writer, I wished for someplace to learn new skills but I didn’t have the resources to take expensive workshops or go to conferences. That’s why I share what I know. Tell all your writing friends. And whatever you do, keep writing. Linda

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