Character is in the small stuff

When we talk about ourselves, and other real people, we can agree that who a person is, the content of their character, is more important than what they are.

Who > What

So why is it, when we talk about our fictional characters, more often than not, we start with what they are.  Job title. Ethnicity. Hair color.  We naturally start by sorting them into societal boxes.

(The featured image for this post is my character Julie the Electrical Engineer who likes Star Trek and wears tiaras. So there’s that.)

Think of these character pitches:

A. Blake is an urban cop.

B. Blake is hispanic and athletic.

C. Blake likes Taco Bell and teen romance movies.

Which Blake is more interesting to you?  I’m not sure, myself, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t A or B.  Those are all “Whats”.

I’m thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer a lot lately, mostly because I’m re-watching the series with my niece and it’s rekindling all my fanishness, but also I’m seeing the flaws in the show.  Like Angel.  When we first meet Angel, you get the feeling he is supposed to be an interesting character. Mysterious good-guy vampire!


Angel didn’t feel interesting to me until we found out he liked Berry Manilow.  Until there was something about him to distinguish him from other good-guy vampires.  It doesn’t matter that there are no other good-guy vampires in the world of the story (*cough* when he is introduced *cough*) there are other good-guy vampires in my head, from Ann Rice to The Lost Boys to, (Brahm Stoker forgive me) Love at First Bite.

When you write a character, that new person is competing for attention not just with the other characters in your story, but with every fictional character in your reader’s head. Hell, with every non-fictional character, too.

Your urban cop character has to stand out in a crowd of other urban cops and still be a recognizable character.

So it comes down to small stuff. Details that make a person a person.  How do you do that? I don’t know. I’m terrible at coming up with characters. Mostly I just write people I know and then change their gender.

Um… not that that guy/girl/alien squid in that story was YOU, dear friend reading this blog. Except the good parts.


One thing I do is write down small character details. When I see someone do something interesting, or say something interesting. I have lists like this:


Amish orphan robots

Cliquish and catty men

“Demolition can be fun! You can’t break anything by accident. I once threw a plate-glass window two stories down into a dumpster. Not a scratch. You could have broken it with a q-tip if you didn’t want to.”

Pietro as a famous superhero comic artist

In theory, at least, I’ll go back to my list when I’m writing a character and need an idea on how to make them quirky.

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