For every Holden Caulfield who exists in literature, there is sure to be an army of heroes with unresolved pasts and unique physical features who simply go unnoticed, and so writing an original character may seem like a daunting task. While it may be a hard stretch to insure your own character’s preservation as a literary achievement, here are a few basics to get started.
To truly dive into character we must start with where many might begin: The archetype. The archetype is another word for a certain general idea of character or personality. Some examples are the hero, the villain, the wise man or sage, the damsel in distress, and many others. These sorts of personalities are prevalent in film, literature, and television. Do not be fooled, these are not cliché, and they do not constitute unoriginality. The archetype is best considered as a building block.
Even Holden Caulfield, in all of his complexity and confusion, can fit into a particular mold, but in "The Catcher in the Rye," a first person novel, every word rings with the voice and the personality of the protagonist. The things that Holden obsesses over – whether they are physical or emotional – and how he responds are things that make his experience unique to the reader. How he interacts and how he views certain people, and how that may or may not change, are essential too. How he speaks to people, whether with contempt or warmth, is telling of the sorts of people with whom he identifies or cares for.
What is important is how it is written, not what is written. What is written may come from some outer source; Michael Chabon’s Meyer Landsman in "The Yiddish Policeman’s Union" is a shoe-in for the anti-hero hardboiled pulp detective archetype, akin to Philip Marlowe or Nick Charles. However, how Landsman is written comes personally from Chabon; Landsman is Jewish, living in a small district of Alaska, where the bulk of the Jewish population resides in this alternate history. It is not L.A., and the protagonist is a minority. Yiddish is the region’s language.
In one particular part of the novel, Landsman suffers shaking from his withdrawals, a darker side of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s characters that is frequently overlooked: a careless consumption of alcohol. The character’s situation pulls him beyond the basic archetype and makes him a unique individual in the realm of fiction. It is a detail that makes Landsman who he is in the midst of his predecessors.
It is the details that make a character a character, and similarly, it is the details in writing that make a story engaging. What a character does while sitting in a chair waiting for his or her appointment is crucial to both the uniqueness of the character and the believability of the story. He or she may fidget, he or she may look around the room and pause on certain things that catch his or her attention, and he or she may – if you’re a very creative and cautious writer – practice a controlled form of magic within their palms.
To write original characters, a writer should allow a character to do what they would do. They should seem natural according to the world in which they reside. Even if they're an outsider, the world will have an affect on them. Let them influence and be influenced. To write original characters usually means to let the character think for himself or herself or itself, let parts of the character be sculpted by external forces and let the character project itself onto the world. To find that perfect balance between those two is part of the creative process.