Thursday, May 13, 2010

How Small “Earprints” Make for BIG Characters

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by C. Patrick Schulze

Listen to a PODCAST of this article.

For just a moment, I’d like you to think about someone you find interesting. What is the oddest thing about this person? It’s probably a small thing, isn’t it? Is that a part of what makes them interesting? Probably so. I have one friend who slathers her lips in Chapstick at least three or four times per hour. Odd? You bet. A big deal? Not at all.

It is this imparting of inconsequential oddities into your characters that is yet another secret to characterization in novels.

For best results, ensure these mannerisms are relatively unimportant and involve movement of some sort. You might consider nail-biting, rapid blinking, the way they hold their head when they’re unsure, their crooked smile, those sort of things.

Think of it like this. Can you identify someone only by the way they walk? That image is what you strive for with your characters. I call it their “earprint.” (Did you know that ears are as unique as fingerprints? True.) So, these mannerisms you give your characters make up their earprints and each major character should have their own.

These unique and ubiquitous traits are what makes one character distinct from another and are often the thing that turns a character from ho-hum to memorable. These mannerisms also offer a glimpse into your character’s soul or an insight into their mental state at any time. They also create an aspect to your characters you need; believability.

These omnipresent idiosyncrasies also have strength as they allow for dramatic reversals. For example, if your character stutters when they’re nervous, how might a scene be affected if your character suddenly doesn’t stutter - just this once?

Remember way back when you first began to write your novel and you filled in a list of character traits? Did you also include a trivial trait or two? If not, you may wish to reconsider.

My favorite oddity we all know about it Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Talk about an odd duck that proved to be a memorable character! Another character I really enjoyed was Robert De Niro’s portrayal in “Stardust” where he played a gay pirate captain who tried not to act gay in front of his men. (Great flick, by the way.) My favorite real person in this regard was Gen. Ulysses Grant who endlessly whittled and smoked cigars regardless the seriousness of any battle in which he commanded.

Now for some general tips to keep in mind.

Each major character should have only one to two. You don’t want this getting out of hand.

Make each tick unique in and of itself. They lose their effectiveness if everyone has the same one.

Ensure your traits are believable. The basketball player who trips every time he runs would never make the cut.

Make these mannerisms meaningful. A character who tugs at their ear in every scene for no reason gets old fast.

Repeat the character’s idiosyncrasy more than once but only at appropriate times. If they blink when their nervous, should they blink when having dinner with their mother or on a first dinner date?

Seek out distinctive traits. Some are so overused they’ve become clichés. Nail-biting is an example. How about someone who perspires on cold days? Is that distinctive enough for you?

Try to make these oddities meaningful in relation to your character.

Use caution with these traits as it’s easy to “show” with them versus “tell.”

Anyone care to tell us those unique traits you’ve created for your characters?

Until we meet again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the Emerging Novel, "Born to be Brothers"

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