What is unique about your character?

In real life, we share the premise that ‘everyone is unique’. A basic premise, I know – but an important one. When helping students to write creatively it has struck me how in many instances our characters are just the same. I think one of the hardest parts of creative writing is the connecting scenes. These are the scenes where the writer has to carry a character from one place to another, or describe them reflecting on something. In a connecting scene the writer is often showing a character who is not in a state of action. I often hear students wonder if they can get rid of these scenes, and the answer may well be yes! But if a character needs to be shown in transit, or in preparation for some event later in the story, there is no shying away from these scenes. When students struggle with writing them I often think the answer is to think about what is unique about your character. The scenes in which a character are not in a state of action, just like in life, are the ones in which their nuances are revealed and we can see their uniqueness. They are a great opportunity to seize in terms of bringing your character to life.

Take for example this quote from Martin Amis’ London Fields, in which he describes his character, the seductive and murderous Nicola Six, in such a connecting scene:

Yes, she drank alone. You bet. And why did she drink alone? Because she was alone, now, at night, more than formerly. What could never be endured, it turned out, was the last swathe of time before sleep came, the path from larger day to night, a little death when the night was still alive and fluttering. Thus the glass banged down on the round table; the supposedly odourless ashtray gave its last weak swirl; and then the baby walk, the smudged trend to the loathed bedding.

Here, Amis has used ‘dead time’ with his character to show what they are really like. We get a sense of her as distinct from other humans, a sense of what makes her unique by seeing how she reacts to something we all experience – the last trundle to bed. I think that when we have a really strong grip on what makes our character unique we can picture them – and hopefully write them – in any scene and know how they would react.

I was speaking recently with another author who told me she was relieved she had got to the point where she now knew what her character would say in any given situation. That revealed to me that she finally has a firm grasp on her! It can be useful to think about what music would your character listen to alone, what preoccupations would they have when left to their own devices? Would they be concerned with their body, their past, their ambitions? In the above quote Amis skilfully uses the third person to curate Nicola Six’s perspective so we see right into her.

Contrast the description of Nicola Six’s ‘dead time’ (not in fact dead at all, very useful for characterisation) with the next extract. In this paragraph from JD Salingers’ Catcher in the Rye, we are narrated in the first person by Holden Caulfield who is staying in a hotel:

When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don’t know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak round to the back, the way I liked it, and then yelled at the top of my goddam voice, ‘Sleep tight ya morons!’ I’ll bet it woke up every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out. Some stupid guy had thrown peanut shells all over the stairs, and I damn near broke my crazy neck.

This ‘alone time’ with Holden is used by Salinger to give us a great insight into his character. What do we learn about him in these few lines? We get a sense of his desperation, his anger, his eccentricity. It is a good potted character study of this person.

Does anyone have examples of any other connecting scenes, where they learnt something unique about a character? I would be interested to see them.


Also published on Medium.

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