A confluence of media has had me thinking about characters lately. First, on my drive back to Philly from WNC, I listened to the episode of Writing Excuses about character quirks, which focused a lot on making characters distinguishable and memorable, even if they are based off of a trope. I think about this a lot because one of my characters gets compared to a certain wizard from Chicago, a wizard I hadn’t heard of until quite a few years after this character came into being.
The second thing came just today when I was reading a post on Aaron Diaz’s art blog, Indistinguishable From Magic. You may or may not be familiar with Diaz’s work from Dresden Codak. Anyhow, in his post, he talks about making characters recognizable, albeit in a visual medium. In talking about the shape of a character, he says, in part,
Character designs follow a hierarchy: you grab the reader’s attention with the most essential information and then invite them to investigate the details. If important elements of your design are only evident in the details, then it needs to be reworked. If your character is not completely distinguishable in silhouette, it needs to be reworked. Detail should always radiate from the core theme.
While I can’t draw worth a damn, I still find this to be a good metaphor for the most part. The silhouette of your character should be distinct, but this can be stretched a little bit more when writing, for the silhouette comes first and foremost from what tropes your character is built off of. One hard-boiled detective will, at first glance, look a lot like all the others, but you have to throw your readers something else immediately, something that tells them that this is a different hard-boiled detective than all the other one’s they’ve met. Everything else is spot-on, whether you’re writing or drawing, though. You can’t expect to keep a reader if you don’t give them something different in the first couple hundred words, if you’re writing a short story, or the first chapter, if you’re writing something longer.
This can be extended, in some ways, to the rest of a story, too. The things that readers need early on are action, something happening that will get them to keep reading, and differentiation, something to tell them what makes your story different than everything else in the slush heap.