People are strange. Odd, that is. And yet, while plots vary widely, most characters in the short stories that cross my desk appear as alike as the contents of a package of Oreos®. Come to think of it, even an occasional Oreo® is cracked. Not so most characters.
So how does one write personalities quirky enough to be memorable on a word count diet?
Dialog is an obvious place to start. Making protagonist and antagonist interact as polar opposites—smart/dumb, funny/serious, smooth-talking/unsophisticated, or speaking different dialects if you write them well—will make them stand out in the reader’s memory.
Going back to the Oreos®—it must be snack time—remember, the filling is usually a different flavor from the cookie. Add depth to your creations by giving them multi-layered personalities. People wear masks. Let those slip now and then to give the reader a peek at the real person hiding inside the sandwich.
While you’re doing that, avoid clichés. Consider the stereotype, then give it a twist. Not every prostitute has a heart of gold, not every teacher loves children (or hates them, for that matter). No villain is 100% evil; no hero is 100% good, and neither character may be a willing participant in the role in which he’s cast. That’s right: maybe the villain is miserable about the harm he’s doing. That doesn’t mean he won’t feel justified doing it, but the twist makes him more interesting.
Finally, save a surprise for the end. Being a little ambiguous here and there without actually misleading the reader can leave room for a reveal beyond the plot’s resolution, enriching both a character’s personality and motivations.
When characters become personalities, I remember them. And, as both a reader and an editor, that makes me remember their creator.
copyright © 2014
N.K. Wagner is publisher and executive of Page & Spine.