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How Unique Should a Character Be?

I was at an open mic last night at a small bar, enjoying listening to original music and people watching. While one of the acts was on stage, I realized that he looked very much like a conglomeration of other musicians I'd met; everything from his hair, to clothes, to posture, and even his music, was similar to something I'd seen before. This isn't to say that his songs were unoriginal, but he just fit the mold of a certain type of musician that I'd encountered in the past.

Meanwhile, at the end of the bar was someone I hadn't seen in a while, but I recognized her instantly. I didn't even have to catch a glimpse of her face to know it was her; just through her gestures and her clothing, I knew it was her. I would put her in an opposite category from the musician on stage; she is truly an original.

Seeing these two people in the same room made me realize that very rarely do I encounter a person so unique that I can honestly say I'll probably never meet another person like him/her. And this thought, of course, made me think about fictional characters. Should they be absolutely unique people, or people who are familiar to us because we've met others like them before?

I realized that most of the characters I encounter and enjoy reading about are usually in the familiar category. They're easier to relate to if I can link them to characteristics I've seen in real life. In that way I get to know them much more quickly because I already have some context for how to interpret them. With truly unique characters, I think it gets a little trickier. They certainly do exist in books, but I realized that they often play the sidekicks (Hassan in John Green's An Abundance of Katherines, for example). This is most likely because truly unique people are a little harder to identify with, and it might also become a bit tedious to be in their heads for a long period of time.

But for a character to be interesting, s/he can't feel derivative, and in this way I think the two categories need to cross over a bit. So let's go back to An Abundance of Katherines, where we have the brilliant-on-paper but dumb-at-life Colin. He's insecure and lonely and heartbroken, which are all emotions the average person can relate to. But he also loves anagrams and spouts random historical and mathematical knowledge that most people wouldn't find interesting. In this way he's a unique character, even though he's relatable on an emotional level. What's funny about this book in particular is that while Colin might be easier to relate to, I've heard several people say that Colin's friend Hassan (the truly unique character) is more fun to read about.

So all of this makes me wonder if maybe there aren't any set rules here. We like characters we can relate to, but we're also amused and intrigued by ones who are completely out there. We want characters we can care about, but we also want them to be more interesting than average people. It seems that ultimately what draws us in is a mix of the familiar and the unique.

Originally published at

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Good thoughts here! Its really got me thinking about my own characters. Thanks for posting. I think I'll link to this today. =D

Anna, I think you hit the nail in the head with this:

"...he's relatable on an emotional level."

I think that's one of the most important things in a character, and from that viewpoint, even a not-so-dashingly-unique character can be enjoyable.

Oh, and how did you get that "originally published" stamp in your post?

Thanks Anna! The "originally published" stamp was a bit tricky, but my husband helped me figure it out. Basically it's done through a Wordpress plugin for an LJ Crossposter. Thanks to the crossposter program, I don't have to cut and paste my entries anymore!

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