When I moved to France, back in 2010, it just so happened that my friend Matt was going to be in Wales at the same time, and since Wales and France were a lot closer than we were in the US, we made a plan to meet up. At that point, I’d known Matt almost five years though we had never met in person. It’s been a long time since the internet was a place your parents warned you about, though that doesn’t always mean your parents were wrong. It just means to be careful. After five year, though, I was fairly sure Matt wasn’t a serial killer. So we made a plan to meet up in Paris because who doesn’t want to say they have a rendez-vous in Paris?
We also decided, as we came up with this plan mostly on a whim, that there should be a red dress. It would be a defining feature – the rose in the pocket, the plaid shirt, the green hoodie – that created recognition, helped me stand out. Of course, in France, wearing anything other than black will make you stand out, but red is such a strong color. It screams, “notice me!” Long story short, it took me nearly 3 months to find the *right Red Dress, and when we did meet up, it was December and snowing, so the dress was covered by a coat and boots and scarves. It’s the thought that counts, though. That Red Dress was a symbol, something to make me stand out, a character trait of the moment, if you will.
How does this relate to writing, you might ask? Well, your characters are special. They are bits of you that have found their way onto paper and you need to give them something special. It could be a red dress or a tattoo crawling over their entire back or even a mole on their cheek. It’s their signature, be it natural or aided by fashion or society. These days, it’s easy enough to find a hundred protagonists that are the same race, same gender, and come from the same background, however much it is tweaked. You have to make yours stand out from the crowd. It doesn’t have to be something crazy or out there. Your girl doesn’t need to have blue hair and be a super ninja. Your guy doesn’t need to speak in rhyming couplets. But there has to be something.
I read a book the other day where the protagonist had little to no personality and neither did the rest of the characters. Did I care about his motivation? Did I care about the plot? Not at all. The only thing special about the book was the universe it lived in. A special world does not make special characters. Give them motivation, give us a reason to care, and give us a reason to remember them.
Harry Potter had his scar and his glasses. Katniss has her bow. Augustus Waters had his cigarette. What will you give your characters?