Today's Tune: Fluorescent Adolescents
Time for IT'S A TRAP! These posts are intended as somewhat humorous (but true) tributes to traps that we writers occasionally find ourselves falling into. Disclaimer: there are always exceptions to every rule. Sometimes, even the worst writer "traps" can be pulled off with style in the right hands.
But they're usually a bad idea. MOVING ON.
IT'S A TRAP! - Unusual Physical Appearance in Place of Personality
If you read genre fiction or fan fiction, odds are good that you've come across this trap at least once. It's pretty easy to spot: a character has a striking, weird, unique, unusually beautiful, or otherwise notable physical quirk, but is otherwise lacking in personality.
This tactic is a favorite of beginning genre writers, particularly in paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction. It's essentially a crutch - a way to make a character stand out without delving into any real characterization work. I wouldn't necessarily call it lazy writing, at least not at first. When one is new to fiction, one is also new to building multi-faceted, three-dimensional characters. It's totally understandable that "make your characters stand out" is translated into "make them look unique."
So we give them purple hair. Or unnaturally-colored eyes. Or a huge scar over some noticeable-but-not-disfiguring area of their body. If there's one thing I've noticed about this trap, it's that these physical attributes always manage to make a character somehow beautiful, rather than unattractive. Because no one wants to read about UGGOS, right, right, right?
Another underlying cause for this trick comes from Special Snowflake Syndrome - our inherent desire to make sure our protagonists in particular are UNIQUE and SPECIAL and ONE OF A KIND. However, this approach almost always falls flat, especially when only select characters have "special" features and there's very little deeper character building going on. It's a parlor trick. HEY, CHECK IT, THIS CHARACTER LOOKS DIFFERENT. THAT MEANS THEY'RE SPECIAL. SEE THE CRAZY HAIR? SEE? SEE?
How To Avoid This Trap
Easy enough: make sure there's more to your character than some shiny physical attribute. More than that, if you're going to give someone under 30 silver hair or feature a character with a robot arm, make sure there is a real, sensible reason for that quirk to exist. Don't throw confetti in your audience's face and expect them to be distracted from a flat character.
Avoid the temptation to give someone an unusual physical appearance if it doesn't make sense for the world you've built. It doesn't make sense for your character to be the only person in the world with orange eyes. It just doesn't. You're cheating at character building. Stop it.
Don't stop at a character's outsides. You have to develop their insides, too.