“Give Them Purple Hair!” – 5 Surefire Ways to Write Standout Characters

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  • What makes a character memorable?

  • How do you make all the members of an ensemble cast stand out quickly?

  • How can you ensure your readers remember your characters if they disappear for chapters at a time?

THE PROBLEM

Have you ever been reading a book and a character pops in who you would swear you’ve never seen before?

“But no!” the author insists. “You know this character! They were introduced back in Chapter 3, and they made a very big impression!”

“But they really didn’t,” you reply to the imaginary author who’s scolding you through their prose. “I don’t have the slightest clue who they are.”

“Well, that’s ridiculous,” the author continues.  “To prove just how ridiculous that is, I’m not going to give you any additional information to remind you about this person or their role in the story.  They are just going to appear, be acknowledged warmly by a main character, say a line, and then leave.  And when they appear yet again in another 100 pages and turn out to be the vital linchpin to the entire plot, you better remember them, buster!”

Now, obviously, it would be distracting (and poor writing) to describe every character in detail every time they appear.  I imagine it could get pretty funny, though – “Who’s there?” I asked.  “It’s me,” said Robert, the middle-aged brown-eyed owner of the hardware store located one block away from me and whose opinion I had recently asked with regards to the best brand of blinds to go in my living room.

So now we have a multi-part problem to solve:

  • Stories need characters, sometimes A LOT of characters
  • After characters are introduced, they can’t always stick around
  • Even worse, they might be out of the story for pages, maybe even chapters, at a time
  • However, when they return, the reader needs to immediately remember that character and their position in the story without having to rack their brain or go searching through earlier chapters

What’s a writer to do?

THE GOAL

Every author wants their characters to be remembered by readers long after the story is finished, but that’s more a problem of engagement – of creating a connection or response in the reader – and can be done over the course of the entire story. 

The problem we’re tackling is more technical – how to create a long-term memory from a character’s initial short-term appearance.

AN ANIME-INSPIRED SOLUTION

If you’ve ever watched anime or even seen any anime-related merchandise, odds are you’ve seen characters with hair colors not on the standard genetic spectrum and hair styles that defy gravity and logic.  For the anime aficionado, this is standard operating procedure, but for the newbie it raises a few questions, like:

  • How did that girl find green hair dye in a post-apocalyptic world?
  • Just how much hair product does that guy use in a year?

and

  • If he headbutted me, would I lose an eye?

But why did this become the norm in Japanese animation?  If you go back to anime’s early days, it had a very clear and simple purpose:  it made certain characters stand out from the crowd.

Regular vs regular hair
(c) 2020 A.M. Pierre www.ampierre.com

There’s not that huge of a difference between these two, but one hairstyle change and voila!

Regular vs purple hair
(c) 2020 A.M. Pierre www.ampierre.com

NOTE: I deliberately did not draw these in a traditional or specific anime style. They are my own characters drawn, inked, and colored in my own drawing style. No copyright infringement here, baby!

“But A.M., anime’s a visual medium, and we’re talking about writing,” I imagine you saying, because imagining potential readers from the future talking to you while you’re writing is a totally normal thing to do.

“Yes, it is visual,” I reply to this imaginary objector, “but a principle is what we’re looking for, not a rule.  And the principle is this: in whatever storytelling medium you’re working in, do something with your character that makes them stand out from the pack.  In other words, give them Purple Hair.”

“[D]o something with your character that makes them stand out from the pack. In other words, give them Purple Hair.”

The two main scenarios where immediate character distinction is important are:

  • When a character only appears briefly early in the story but needs to be remembered when he shows up later
  • When a group of characters are all introduced at the same time – for example, when your protagonist arrives at a new school/club/workplace/etc.

Fortunately, there are several methods you can use, either individually or in conjunction with each other, to make your character “sticky” and memorable.

Your character will stand out.

Your character will make an impact.

Your character will, in effect, have Purple Hair.

5 WAYS TO GIVE YOUR CHARACTER PURPLE HAIR

To start, I’m sure you’ve heard the advice to “write what you know.”  This applies to all writing, just in different ways.  You may be writing about fantastical places and creatures, but if your characters are based off of human personalities, there are things you know.  You know how people talk to each other.  You know how they feel.  You know how they react.

So, write what you know.  When you meet someone who stands out in your memory, why is that?

Do you have vivid memories of the man who bagged your groceries three weeks ago?  Probably not, but if you had an encounter with someone that affected you emotionally or was “out of the norm” in some way, you could potentially remember it for years – even if the encounter was just as brief as your grocery store checkout.

NOTE:  Of course, most if not all of these methods work when introducing main characters for the first time, too, but they become especially important when your intro time with the character is limited.

Let’s start by looking at a way to make a character memorable when they appear briefly then disappear for a time:

1. THE BIG ENTRANCE

I don’t just mean a literal Aragorn bursting into Helms’ Deep style Big Entrance, though that could work.  This is more about using a pivotal or crucial moment to introduce a character and create an emotional response.

Positive or negative, emotions make an impact. A shortcut to creating that emotion is to have the new character have a strong interaction with an established character.  It doesn’t matter if the established character is “good” or “bad”, hero or villain – there still will be an emotional response to the new character’s treatment of them.  Or, in VERY broad terms:

Established CharacterNew Character’s ActionEmotional Response
HeroThe new character helps the hero at a crucial momentReader is endeared to the new character
HeroThe new character hurts the hero at a crucial momentReader dislikes the new character
VillainThe new character helps the villain at a crucial momentReader dislikes the new character
VillainThe new character hurts the villain at a crucial momentReader is endeared to the new character

In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Peeta’s Big Entrance is when he gives Katniss bread when she’s hungry.  Even though we as the readers don’t “see” this happen as it’s a memory of Katniss’, it still endears him to us for his compassion toward Katniss at this crucial moment.

Keep in mind that “crucial moment” can have a lot of different meanings. 

  • It could be crucial emotionally, like a random stranger sincerely complimenting you when you’re feeling like nothing you do is right.
  • It could be crucial dramatically, like a new co-worker finding an important file for you right before you get fired for losing it.
  • It could be crucial plot-wise, like a mysterious man in black opening an escape route to an alternate dimension as the emperor’s goons close in around you.

Like I said, a lot of different meanings.

If there’s not a crucial moment the character can hop in to, you can move on to…

2. THE DEFINING PERSONALITY TRAIT

Here we highlight a single, memorable personality trait that makes someone likeable or detestable.  With this technique, we’re moving on to Purple Hair methods that also work well when introducing multiple characters at once. 

This is NOT about writing one-dimensional characters – it’s about initially exposing the dominant dimension clearly and memorably.

Go back to “writing what you know”.  What are the personality traits that make you remember someone you met briefly, like at a party or work event?  Here’s the traits that stand out most to me, both good and bad:

  • Charming
  • Funny
  • Sarcastic
  • Cruel
  • Compassionate
  • Flirty
  • Creepy

With careful writing, all of these traits and others can be shown in as little as a single sentence.

Here’s a visual example:  in the original Star Wars, you get a firm grasp of Han Solo’s defining personality trait in the first 5 seconds he’s on screen:  he’s cocky, but in a likeable/charming way.  True, he does play a large role in the movie from that point on – but if, after his intro scene, you hadn’t seen him for 30 minutes or even an hour, wouldn’t you still have remembered him when he returned?

Also remember that, when introducing an ensemble, they can’t all have the same defining personality trait on display for this to work.  Personally, I’ve read stories or seen movies where a very clever and funny writer has given every single character clever and funny things to say.  I’m not saying I don’t enjoy funny and clever dialogue, because of course I do.  I’m saying it does little to distinguish your characters if they all give the same first impression.

3. THE QUIRK

This doesn’t have to be “odd” or “weird” – just unique.  It also doesn’t have to be unique from the reader’s perspective, just from the perspective of the other characters.  And by unique, I mean:

  • Different from the book’s other characters, or
  • Different from the rest of the book’s world

In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Montag meets Clarisse as she is walking outside her house.  She’s a pedestrian?! How shocking!

I kid, of course, but from Montag’s perspective that’s exactly what it is.  She is different from the rest of the world. Her actions give us an instant feel for her character, and his reaction gives us a handle on the world they both live in.

What might your character do that sets them apart?

  • Different body language, like making eye contact while the rest of the world looks down at their phones.
  • Different preferences, like ordering water in the saloon in an old western
  • Different habits, like taking baths in a world suffering from water shortages
  • Different small choices/actions, like sitting off to the side quietly while everyone else in the room bombards the protagonist with questions
  • Different big choices/actions, like standing their ground against a fire-breathing dragon while every other character runs.

Voila! Purple Hair!

A BIG WARNING when using The Quirk:  I’m sure you’ve heard “show, don’t tell” more times than you’d care to, but here’s yet another time when someone is telling you “show, don’t tell”.

I was reading an ensemble introduction scene in a novel (that will remain nameless).  A new character was introduced, and the narrator directly told me, the reader, that this character was just so funny.  And so I waited… and waited… and waited for this character to say or do anything even remotely funny.  Nothing.  By telling and not showing, the author hadn’t given the new character Purple Hair – they had made me lose all interest in him and had me hoping I wouldn’t see his humorless face again.

4. THE SPEECH PATTERN

While it can be used for a solo intro, The Speech Pattern method of Purple Hair works best in an ensemble introduction, as the various characters can easily be contrasted by what they say in reaction to the same situation.

A unique Speech Pattern could include:

  • Unique grammar choices, like the tendency to use short/clipped sentences or run-on ones
  • Overuse of slang or a particular word or phrase
  • Using higher-level vocabulary or grammatical structure than those around them
  • Using the wrong words to describe things
  • Being noticeably more or less formal than those around them
  • Refusing to answer questions directly or fully
  • Refusing to speak at all

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t include accents in that list.

How to convey an accent is a big discussion – one that’s big enough I might do a separate post just on it.  Basically, I don’t recommend you attempt writing accents phonetically unless you’re Mark Twain, but if you specify the accent and then write in a style that evokes the accent, the audience will hear it in their head.  This does require research/knowledge of the structure of the character’s mother tongue, but it is effective.  If necessary, a single judiciously chosen word written phonetically can also evoke the accent.  More than that is a gamble, and if you miss the mark, the writing can become difficult to read and your story’s flow will be disrupted.

5. THE PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTE

In this category are all the things you see when you first encounter someone.  They could include:

  • An accessory 
  • A piece of clothing
  • Makeup or physical decoration
  • A unique physical characteristic

Unique physical characteristics can include being above average height, having two different eye colors, having Purple Hair, etc. etc. etc. 

Physical attributes and descriptions are easy to come up with, but I wouldn’t recommend relying solely on them to identify your characters.  After all, they often engender little emotional response in the reader and so can be less memorable if you’re not careful.

NOTE: in stories of the past, physical disabilities or deformities or simply “not fitting then-current beauty standards” were all used by writers to signal negative character traits. By which I mean that a writer would describe a person as having a misshapen limb or unattractive features, and with that and that alone they would let the reader know that that character was evil or the villain.  I am NOT endorsing that in any way, shape or form, because, well, that’s ridiculous.  I am also NOT saying that every character should be physically flawless and perfect.  And I am also NOT saying that those with disabilities or who are less than perfect (so, everyone) should not be included in books.  Those are all absurd.  Everyone deserves to have their stories told, and no one deserves to be vilified because of something someone else perceives as a flaw.

This brings us to Number 6.  Wait, I said only 5, didn’t I?  Well, that’s because this technically isn’t a standalone method, but rather a way to reinforce the previous 5 methods.

6. THE REINFORCEMENT

After a character is introduced, reinforce the Purple Hair within a few pages if at all possible.

There’s a saying that comedy comes in 3’s.  You introduce the joke (funny), you come back to it a little later to reinforce it (funnier), then you wait a bit longer before bringing it back one last time (funniest).

To really make that Purple Hair stand out, show it to the reader again.  How can you do that?

For The Big Entrance, have another character mention or remember the action.

For the other four, have the Purple Hair character exhibit their Defining Personality Trait, Quirk, etc. again.  Or, if that’s not possible, have another character make a comment or think about it after the Purple Hair character has left the stage.

That way you’ve shown their Purple Hair trait (memorable), reinforced it (more memorable), and then you’ll show it again when the character returns later in the book (most memorable).

WHAT NOT TO DO

Do not make quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake.  Giving one of these defining attributes to a character has to be character-motivated.  It has to be a real part of them, not a gimmick.

Purple Hair isn’t about creating caricatures.  Every single person – real or fictional – has something that’s unique to them – we’re just looking for that unique something and highlighting it sooner rather than later in the story.

IN CONCLUSION

give them purple hair
(c) 2020 A.M. Pierre www.ampierre.com

I hope all this has, if not helped you outright, at least given you some food for thought. 

As with most things, everything mentioned here has exceptions, and these aren’t the only solutions to this problem.  In fact, if you have any additional ideas, I’d love to see them in the comments below!

The infinite possibilities are part of what makes writing so interesting, so get out there and have fun exploring it. 

Happy Writing! 😊

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