Enrich Your Characters in 5 Easy Steps

I am a space fanatic. It started when I was a little girl in school studying the constellations. I was hooked. Even today, I’d give anything to try an antigravity chamber and the multi-axis trainer. Don’t get me wrong; I have absolutely no desire to go into space (the thought terrifies me), but what’s out there is fascinating. I’m always watching television specials about the stars, the planets, dark matter, and black holes. I’m the one in my family telling people about upcoming meteor showers, eclipses, and anything interesting they might find in the sky. When NASA canceled the shuttle missions, I was devastated. But I still follow ISS news.

Luca Parmitano This summer has been particularly eventful. Did you know that history was made on July 9? Luca Parmitano was the sixth Italian astronaut in space, but the first of his country to take a spacewalk. He celebrated by sharing some traditional fare with his crew mates. The Italian Space Agency created an antipasto appetizer, a lasagna and pesto risotto first course, an eggplant parmesan main course, and a tiramisu dessert. (Imagine that. Tiramisu in space!) Parmitano began a second spacewalk on July 16, but the walk was cut short due to water leakage in his helmet. It was a dangerous situation, but he remained calm and tragedy was averted.

Of course I feel some Italian pride given his accomplishments, but that wasn’t the only exciting thing that happened this summer. On November 26, 2011, NASA launched a space probe to Mars. It just landed on August 6, after what is being dubbed as the “seven minutes of terror.” When it finally set down, undamaged, in the Gale Crater, NASA’s celebration was caught on camera—and instantly Flight Director Bobak Ferdowsi became an internet sensation.

Mohawk GuyFerdowsi, now known as “Mohawk Guy,” didn’t set out to break scientist stereotypes, but he’s doing it. He’s a self-proclaimed ‘exercise fiend’ and a recreational softball player, but what’s taken over the web is his hair. Ferdowsi gets a special cut for each mission, and this one was noteworthy. He sported a Mohawk with red and blue highlights and bleached stars in the side.  His cut inspired plenty of memes and a 10,000 follower spike for him on Twitter, but really, he is inspiring many of today’s youth to become scientists. By breaking the mold of “geeky scientist,” he’s opening the world of science to a whole new group of students. And isn’t that what’s really important?

Writers: Consider the characters in your WIP. Are any of them stereotypical in any way? Dumb jocks, nerdy scientists, Versace-clad models, Rolex-wearing businessmen? Try mixing things up a bit to add variety and authenticity to your characters. Here are five things to look at when analyzing pigeonholed characters.

  1. Clothing
    Do your characters wear clothes that announce what they do or who they are? Coaches may need sweat suits on the field, but not at home. Maybe your coach likes to lounge around in silk pajamas or dress clothes. This wardrobe change can help expose the hidden dimensions of your character.
  2. Hair
    Many people don’t think about it, but hair can be stereotypical. The librarian with her hair in a bun. The model with long curly tresses. The surfer with bleached streaks in his hair. It doesn’t have to be that way. Consider changing a stereotypical hairstyle to make your characters more individual.
  3. Accessories
    Are the props you’re working into your characters jobs and homes trite? Try using a few things that are unexpected, or omitting some things that are cliché. Using our librarian again, does she wear eyeglasses on a chain? Omit them. Does your professor have a pipe and leather chairs in his office? Nix the pipe. Switch an overstuffed sofa in for the chairs.
  4. Food
    Unless you’re trying to establish a strong cultural tie, you don’t want your characters eating and drinking only food from a specific ethnicity. The Irish don’t need to always be drinking in bars, an Asian character doesn’t have to eat rice with chopsticks for every meal, and Italians (and I know this for a fact) like more than just spaghetti or pizza.
  5. Activities
    Are your characters involved in cliché work and play situations? Does your English teacher only attend the theater? Send her to a ball game. Does your coach come home and turn on Sports Center? Have him play classical music instead. Doing something out of the ordinary will round out your people and make them more than cookie-cutter characters.

Changing from the unexpected will enrich your work, deepen your characters, and enliven the reading experience for your fans. Just a little work and forethought goes a long way in story development. It’s worth it.

Are you a space fan, too? Are you interested in breaking stereotypes or in encouraging students toward the science fields? Are you working on a story where you’ve shattered traditional labels? Share your story with us in the comments section.

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8 Comments

  1. Great post, Staci! I always try to have at least one character that goes against the stereotype, makes the story more interesting. I’m a space nut too. I saw Ferdowski on The Nerdist and he seems like a pretty cool person. He’s definitely given science a new look.

    • I’ve seen him EVERYWHERE lately. He does seem pretty cool, and so down to earth. To see someone so against the stereotype still so passionate about his calling is pretty impressive. I wish him many successes in his career. Thanks for the comment, Missy.

  2. As always you offer excellent points and gentle reminders. Persevere and t
    hank you Miss Staci. 🙂

  3. Great advice Staci. I recently finished a story with an antique store owner that had martial art training. She was a bit odd but I believe that is what made her so interesting and fun. I believe you need to add something to your characters to make them interesting and unpredictible. That is what gives them life.

  4. Great suggestions for adding depth to your characters with even the simple things like clothing or food choices.

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