Do Your Characters Have Quirks?

It’s been many years since I’ve seen this character on television, yet I can still hear his voice when I’m walking through the dessert section of the grocery store, “COOKIES!” Why? There were no expensive CGI effects on Sesame Street. You remember the Cookie Monster, because no other character is quite like him, he’s one of a kind. You can see a reflection of yourself in the Cookie Monster, because he’s obsessed with cookies, and everyone is obsessed with something.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “I’ll be back,” in The Terminator (1984) you’re anticipating his next move. It’s an action movie, so you know that someone’s going to get killed, or something is going to be blown up. If you’ve watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban (2004), you remember Professor Snape saying, “Turn to page 394,” despite the fact he didn’t say it during an exciting scene. Allan Rickman developed a cadence for his character’s speech that was so unique, you can’t forget what he says.

Watching a B movie, the first thing you’ll notice, is there’s nothing about the characters that you can relate to, they’re just cardboard cutouts; constructed from layers of cliches. They don’t feel “real.” One science fiction movie I started to watch, began with a soldier who has gone rogue, he’s ignoring his commander’s orders to stand down. How many times have you seen that happen in a movie? A maniac has kidnapped a woman, and he’s acting exactly as you’d expect a maniac to behave, wild eyes, screaming, making threats, etc. What’s unusual, or memorable about these characters? Nothing.

As you’re writing, think about whether the movie that’s showing on the movie screen in your head is a B movie. Do your characters have any traits that will make them memorable? Consider Saving Private Ryan (1998); all the characters are wearing uniforms, so they aren’t distinguished by their clothing. but each one has a distinct personality that makes them feel like real individuals. And that’s what draws you in, it allows you to wonder what it would be like, to be in their situation. Likewise, if Captain Jean Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) feels like a real person, then you can imagine what it might be like commanding a starship.

There are endless options when developing characters; age, gender, height, clothing, speech (cadence, accent, slang), occupation, food preferences, where they were born, where they’ve lived, there hopes and dreams, who they’ve loved, how they voted…. Throw in time travel and things get really interesting; he was born in 21st Century, but has been sent back to live in the 17th Century. If you’re writing science fiction, you’ll have to stretch your imagination to make an alien character stand out from other aliens!

The reason you can create unique characters, is because you are a unique human being with a unique imagination. You hear people say, there was only one Steve Jobs, or there was only one Jimmy Hendrix, and that’s true, but there is also, only one you. Keep writing!

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper


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