Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Seven of Nine – uniqueness in your characters

Camy here! I’m a HUGE Star Trek Voyager fan (I watch the reruns on SpikeTV). I really like the character Seven of Nine.

For you non Star Trek fans, Seven is a human woman who was a Borg (mindless cyborg) for most of her life, but Captain Janeway rescued her from the Borg collective and is teaching her how to be an individual.

Much of her storyline is Seven learning to be a unique individual after being just like all the other mindless, unethical Borgs. Sometimes the situations she gets herself into are humorous, other times they are heartbreaking or bittersweet.

Seven is a good example of a character who is unique. She has two aspects her character that make her so unique:

(1) Her backstory as a Borg is very unusual
(2) her striving to become someone different gives the audience something to root for. Her goal of overcoming a complete LACK of individuality is a very different sort of character arc.

Seven’s example also teaches me, as a writer, to work harder to break out of the box when crafting my characters. My characters should also have an intriguing, unusual backstory, and then strive toward a personal goal.

Unique characters don’t have to be aggressive or outgoing. My favorite example of a unique literary character is Anne Elliot from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Anne is a very quiet character, yet she stands out from other characters:

(1) She has a strong emotional backstory. She turned down the one man she loved at the pressure of her family, and has regretted it ever since. What romance reader wouldn’t love a backstory like that?

(2) She has a strong personal goal in the story. The man she spurned returns and is attracted to another woman completely unlike herself—a woman of determined, headstrong opinions and playful willfulness. Yet Anne strives to remain true to her own personality, to not give in to despair. She doesn’t change who she was and she remains confident in her own sense of self-worth, despite the painful things that happen to her and her disagreeable family.

This sort of character might not work in today’s modern publishing industry (for one, Anne doesn’t have an external goal for the story, whereas current publishing trends favor characters with external goals), but Anne Elliot illustrates that a quiet character can still be unique and memorable, as long as she has those two elements.

I want to challenge you, as a writer, to look at your own characters and see if they’re unique and memorable. Think of your favorite characters from fiction—whether it’s Scarlett O’Hara or Stephanie Plum, James Bond or Hercule Poirot. Are your own characters as unique? Do they stand out from the pack?

Look at the backstories and story premises of New York Times Bestsellers. Many of them are very unique:

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen—the hero, Jacob, had lost his parents and walked out of his veterinary exams and joined a second-rate circus.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See—two women deepen their friendship over the years through the use of nu shu, a secret language among women, painted on a fan.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards—a man secretly gives away his newborn daughter, who has Downs Syndrome, while keeping her healthy fraternal twin brother.

While not copying the story elements, try to capture the kind of color and vivacity of those characters in your own characters. It can be an intriguing or emotional backstory, or an intriguing or emotional story premise.

Utilize your critique partners and ask for hard, honest truth. Is your character really different? Does she have a unique backstory and a strong character goal for your story?

(Please note, as I mentioned briefly a few paragraphs ago: while a strong character goal wasn’t as necessary in older works of fiction published 15 years ago, it’s strongly encouraged for debut novelists wanting to break into publishing now.)

What can you do to MAKE your characters more brilliant or defined? Maybe give them a deeper backstory? Maybe give them a more dire personal goal?

A truly unique character will make an agent or editor stand up and take notice from the query letter alone. With a little bit of intensive thought and brainstorming, you can make your own characters colorful and memorable.

If you’re a bit stuck on your characterization and want some feedback, feel free to post about your character in the comments and ask for ideas on how to make him/her more unique! We have lots of great brainstormers here!

Also, I’m hoping my Seeker sisters will chime in with how their own characters captured the interests of their editors! I think it will be helpful for everybody!

Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. Her novels Single Sashimi and Deadly Intent are out now. She runs the Story Sensei critique service, is a staff worker for her church youth group, and leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels and ponders frivolous things. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for giveaways!


  1. I'm not a big Star Trek fan but I loved Voyager and Seven of Nine! She was my favorite character too. I cried when this series was over and haven't watched Star Trek since (not even the new movie.)

    XOXO~ Renee

  2. 7o9 basically saved the series. Wish they had done the same for Enterprise.

    Here's my character:
    She was born a nobleman's daughter, but when she was ten he was stripped of his title and cast out of their hereditary lands. He died from unspecified causes some years later.
    She now works as a milkmaid and barterer, shuttling goods around town since she inherited the town's only mechohorse. The milking she does for extra cash to support her mother, older sister, and her sister's children since her sister's husband is essentially a deadbeat and never around. Her goal is to return to the idyllic life she had as a child, and her plan is to find a rich nobleman to marry.

    How does that sound?

  3. Scary . . . I'm actually watching Voyager right now! And Persuasion is my favorite novel.

    I love strong, unique characters and always try to give each of mine something that makes them "real," makes them stand out from what I typically see in fiction/movies/TV.

    Another great source for studying unique characters is the TV show Lost.

  4. Renee, I actually think you will like the new Star Trek movie. My husband and I just watched it and I was incredibly impressed with the writing, the very clever storyline, the acting, the action, and the special effects!

    lapetus999--your heroine has a good, emotional backstory! Her goal to find a rich nobleman and return to her idyllic life is a bit vague--can you maybe break that down into a more specific goal for how she's going to meet a nobleman and convince him to marry her? You want to make sure that your heroine's goal is something unusual, that will make the editor think, "Huh, I wonder how she's going to pull that off."

    Kaye--I must admit I started watching LOST and loved how each character's backstory was slowly revealed with each episode! It made for such rich characterization. But then the storyline lost me (as well as the millions of threads they started and left hanging) so now only my husband watches it. I'm not even interested in seeing the last season. I replaced LOST with other shows like Leverage. :)


  5. Oh, and also Lie To Me--my geeky side loves the psychology of it.

  6. Impetus 999-

    wait a minute. that's MY goal.
    Let me know how she does and where those rich noblemen are hanging out these days

    Thanks Camy. I guess you could say our characters need a lot of 'baggage'!

  7. LOL good observation, Debra! I guess it does seem that way!

  8. Wonderful thought provoking post, Camy! Making a character's backstory unique is important, but not easy to do.

    I love to write characters whose hopefully unique backstories clash. In The Substitute Bride, my February release, heroine Elizabeth Manning's life has been turned upside down by the very thing her groom of convenience, Ted Logan, is hiding. Giving them very different life styles made it even more fun. :-)

    I brought waffles and maple syrup this morning. Not diet food, but yummy.


  9. Morning Camy, But I bet you're still up. smle

    I loved 7 of 9 also. Great character. And I miss the series. I really like Lie to Me also. Haven't tried Leverage.

    Thanks Janet for the waffles. They hit the spot.

    One of my characters in my wip is a woman forced to leave the SWAT team because of an injury from a gunshot wound so she retires early and starts traveling to find her purpose.

  10. Great blog, Camy!I always think of strong external goal when I'm developing a character, but I can skimp on the backstory. I'll work on that aspect from now on. Thanks for the tip.

  11. We all must have been watching Star Trek last night. :o) I've actually been a fan of everything Star Trek except Deep Space Nine. I just couldn't find any enthusiasm for that one. The best were Voyager & Next Generation. I thought the new movie was really good (the gag reel was hilarious). I hope they do another.

    I'm also a fan of Leverage (and Lie to Me) ~ you watch good television! lol I LOVE the characters and they both have different story lines than most of what else is on TV. Great article, Camy. Thanks so much for sharing.

    I look forward to hearing about more characters.

  12. Fantastic post.

    All the examples help put the concept in light better. Makes total sense.


  13. Great post, Camy! Though I've never watched Star Trek.

    The heroine in the first book I sold was pretty wacky--on the surface. She was a waitress with pink-tinged hair who wore tons of jewelry and was a little smart mouthed. But as the book went on, I tried to add depth to her (and revealed why her hair was that color and that she loved making jewelry). And showed she was a little mouthy because she was protecting someone.

    And I contrasted that with the blue-blood, stodgy hero--set in his ways, loyal to the family bank, a little judgemental...

    It's so fun to build characters! :)

  14. VERY timely post for me, Camy, because I have been brainstorming about ways to make the heroine from my current whip, A Heart Revealed, (Emma Malloy, Charity O'Connor's scarred friend from Dublin) more compelling and unique other than the fact she was abused by a husband who threw hot grease in her face. Thanks for your post today because it gives me a new perspective on that.

    My concern is that when you write as many characters in a novel/series as you and I tend to (i.e. your Sushi Series), you run the risk of repeating personalities or traits, which scares me. You did a great job of making each cousin different in your series, and so far, I've attempted to do that as well, but do you ever worry that you will repeat characters as you continue to write, no matter how unique they may be?


  15. I have three books I'm trying to brainstorm now. The one I'm about to start is giving me trouble because the hero and heroine basically have the same goal, which kills the conflict. I think I just need to brainstorm their backstories some more.

    The heroine is a servant and is an orphan. The other servants are her "family" and she would protect them at all costs. The villainess (Is that a word?) is trying to destroy her because she knows something about her that the heroine doesn't.

    The hero is my problem. He wants to rescue her, and she wants to be rescued, therefore I have no conflict. Now, either he has to decide he DOESN'T want to rescue her (and I have an idea for that, but I'm not sure I like it) OR she has to decide she doesn't want to be rescued by him, and that would just be dumb.

    I thought about prolonging the part where he's trying to figure out if she is the person he's supposed to be saving. He isn't sure, so I could have them falling in love as he tries to find out the truth before it's too late. Hmmm, that just might work. Maybe I could create a decoy damsel. Okay, this is really coming together now. Thanks for the help, Camy!!!

    Gotta go write! Bye!

  16. Star Trek is big around here. :)

    I always wondered if they poured Jeri into that suit or just painted it on. ;)

  17. That's so funny you mentioned Persuasion. I've thought about that book and was trying to figure out why it works. You're right! It must be just her character that makes the book.
    Good food for thought!

  18. Oh my goodness, Camy, I haven't watched Star Trek in years. Wow, did that bring back memories or what. Seven was one of my fav characters, and now I see why.

    Okay - so- I love the Big Bang Theory because of the 'unique' characters. They do all the socially awkard things your NOT supposed to do...LOL

    Anne Elliot is one of my favorites too, and though not as celebrated as Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightley is my favorite Austen hero. Unlike everyone else, he tells Emma the truth about herself, and he cares more about people than social status.

    My contemp romantic comedy heroine is a SUPER friendly southern girl who says the first thing that pops into her head - and it usually ends in an embarrassing/funny situation.

    Thanks for sharing, Camy

  19. Great post, Camy, as usual. I too loved Seven of Nine. An Chokotay (sp?) was wonderful, too.

    I always start off with 'uniqueness' in mind, but as the story progresses, my heroines seem to slide back into ordinary again. LOL. I forget to keep adding in the unique qualities.

    Thanks for the hints.

    P.S. Can we have strong coffee go with those waffles, Janet? Need the caffeine today!

  20. Huge Star Trek fan here. Loved the movie (though my kids couldn't understand why I kept laughing at the cracks by the new Doctor McCoy).

    Loved Seven of Nine, but then I'm a guy. A beautiful woman in that outfit saying, "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated," probably would have a guy saying, "Ah, marriage." ( :-) OK. I'm know I'm going to catch flack for that one.)

    Will post a character item later.

    Erica, they probably did to Jeri what they did to Michelle Pfeiffer in the second Batman. They had her sit in a cold room for 30 minutes, then put her in a suit two sizes too small.

  21. Sorry, wanted to throw something in for Melanie.

    Re: your hero. Maybe he really wants to rescue the heroine, but something big stops him. He just can't (for whatever reason). Maybe the villainess has a hand in this, too. Blackmail comes to mind.

    Just a thought that popped in when I read your post.



  22. Oh! You all are NOT allowed to talk about coffee and caffeine on here today! I'm on a new diet that has you drinks tons of water (with cucumber, lemon, mint and ginger) the first 4 days. No coffee. No Diet Dr. Pepper. I DYING. DYING I tell you. I had the worst caffeine-withdrawl headache yesterday and the day before!!!!!!!

    Just hearing Susan mention strong coffee made me smell it (see, I'm going off the deep end), and made me salivate.

    Will I make it for 4 whole days?????????

    If I don't turn up again in Seekerville, y'all be sure to send someone to check on me, okay?


  23. Thought provocking post. Thanks.

    My character is a man living in pre-civil war era who's wife is kidnapped by his own father. He tries to rescue her, but is constantly rebuffed at every turn. He does not have a healthy relationship with his father, (he doesn't know he kidnapped his wife). The baggage he carries would be bad memories from childhood and his lack of trust in God over his wife's disappearance. But I often wonder if he needs work. What do you think?

  24. can you maybe break that down into a more specific goal for how she's going to meet a nobleman and convince him to marry her? You want to make sure that your heroine's goal is something unusual, that will make the editor think, "Huh, I wonder how she's going to pull that off."

    I don't know if her goal is that unusual, but the fact that she's a milkmaid kinda puts her down a few rungs from other prospects. But then she upgrades her position by working as a musician on a riverboat...which actually not really an upgrade when you think about it...but she makes a ton of money which allows her to buy fancy dresses and manicures and hire stylists etc.

    She forms an orchestra that plays at the formal Harvest Ball where all the eligible noblemen are, so she can sneak in the back door as a musician.

    She has no idea how to convince someone to marry her except to make herself the most beautiful woman at the Ball. The thing that works for her is her years of hard labor that make her assertive and strong, unlike all the wilting flowers at the Ball. But she's willing to sacrifice anything to make this happen.

    I don't know if that answers your concerns, but thanks for the input!

  25. I have a sense with characters for when they 'come to life' for me.

    I've got a heroine right now who just isn't fully developed. I can't quite get a handle on her. Right now she's okay, a fiery red-head, quick temper, kind of cliche.
    I've talked about giving characters quirks on this blog before and I haven't given her one. So maybe that will help, but it's a process. I can tell I haven't yet accomplished bringing them to life by how I daydream about them. I can feel if I like them or not, root for them or not, get annoyed with them or not. If my emotions aren't engaged then I still need to do more work.

    It's kind of like if you're writing along and need to refer to their eye color or hair color and realize it doesn't flow, you've got to go look it up. That's a bad sign that you're not really seeing them in your head because that all ought to ... not just BE THERE... but be vividlly there. And if it's's because their not really alive to me. Yet.
    Discovering a character is always really fun for me.

  26. okay, so let's say I put Voyager in my netflix queue. Is 7o9 in the first season and on, or does she come along later? just curious.

    Has anyone enjoyed Bleak House the tv series from BBC? Highly recommend it!

  27. Thanks, Sue! I'm having a wonderful breakthrough today. I'm making notes in a Word document and hope to start writing on Monday. So exciting. :-)

  28. 7 of 9 comes in later, after they knock off Kes, the resident hottie from when the show started. (This comment is not to impugn the half-human, half-Klingon female who was no slouch herself.)

  29. Hey all,

    Camy's Internet is down so she asked me to let you all know that she will tend to comments as soon as she is able to get back online.

    Thanks for your patience! Feel free to continue to comment and Camy will respond when she's able.

    Thanks all!


  30. Never watched Star Trek but this character def. sounds like someone I'd want to read about!
    Great post Camy. This is something I really need to work on with my characters.

  31. Hey Camy!!
    I've never seen Star Trek, but the characters certainly sound interesting and entertaining. I might have to check it out now! : )

    When are you having a new book out...just curious, though it's off the topic : D

    Tina, what's your email, I had a quick question? Or if you wanna email me at hccelie[at]gmail[dot]com.

  32. Missy,I feel for you! Hang in!!!


  33. Camy,
    Great post. Got me thinking, as well. I'm creating new characters, and like Mary, if I don't feel the connection, I know I need more work. In a WIP, Donald Maass said to give the character a quirk -- so I made him afraid of dogs. Turned out to be very important in the story. Who knew?

  34. Great post, Camy. I haven't watched Star Trek in years...can you say William Shattner and Leonard Nimoy era??? Ouch! That's carbon dating if I ever saw it : )

    The backstory that comes with my characters remains a mottled ball until about halfway through the book when I suddenly realize WHY this book has to be written. It's funny, I tend to add depth as I go and not even realize it until I stall out and have to really look at the path the characters have taken.

    I think, some things just aren't meant to be explained : )

    Way to go, Camy!

  35. Debra,
    I've been wanting to watch Bleak House for 3 months now and have never had the opportunity to get it.
    Ooh, I'm going ot have to try all the more

  36. Hi guys! Sorry I was AWOL, but I only just got my internet back a few minutes ago!

    Janet--that's a great point, it's always more interesting if the characters' backstories clash!

    Sandra--OMG a former SWAT team heroine? I love that! Then again, you're talking to someone who adored the TV show Alias and any show with a kick butt heroine.

    Cara--you bring up a good point--a great backstory is good, but a strong external goal is even better! I know that many times editors are specifically looking for a strong external goal when they read the synopsis.

    Thanks, Lee! I'm with you on DS9, just couldn't get into it. I think I also liked Voyager because they had a strong external goal for the entire series--to find their way home!

    Lynn--thanks so much!

    Missy--I loved your heroine in that book! (Altho it might have been b/c I was partial to the pink hair, myself. ;) I loved how she clashed with the hero, too! I always think of him as Mr. Fort Knox. LOL

    Julie, I can relate to your fear about making characters too similar! But then I read someone like Agatha Christie who managed to make so many different characters, and so many of them incredibly unique, and I think, "Surely God will help me out here, right?" Let's both be praying He helps us craft characters that each stand out in their own way!

    LOL Melanie I loved reading about your thought processes!!! Good luck on that story!

    Erica--You took the words right out of my mouth! That suit was soooooo tight!

    Jennifer--great! I'm actually rereading Persuasion right now, LOL

    Pepper--Now I have to watch Big Bang Theory!

    Susan--my "trick" (if you can call it that) is to make the unique quality of the heroine a vital aspect of her character and of the plot. That way the uniqueness continues to stick to the forefront of the story and she never "slides" into anything less than original. That might work for you, too!


    Sue--Ooooh, good thought for Melanie's character! I like that!

    Missy--you poor thing!!! I'll be praying for you!

    Casey--I really like the twist of how his wife is kidnapped by his own father! Can you play off that a bit? Or maybe you can elaborate on his relationship with his father? If that relationship is unusual, that would make for good characterization, too.

    lapetus, that's fantastic! I love the different things she does to try to accomplish her goal.

    Mary, I can relate to that whole "come to life" part. I usually brainstorm a character until I come up with one or several things about them that suddenly make things click, and then I know I've got my character down.

    Debra, actually, I don't think she comes in until the 3rd? 4th? season? You might need to check on IMDB.

    Walt--I kind of miss Kess. I liked the actress, although the way they wrote her off the show was really dumb, in my opinion.

    Jessica--if you have the time, I definitely recommend Star Trek Voyager. I just really liked the characters a lot.

    Hannah--next book will be Formula for Danger, the sequel to Deadly Intent, which comes out in September 2010. Thanks for asking! :)

    Debby--that's fantastic! I love how things like that just suddenly make the storyline better!

    Audra--you know, I know SO many writers who are exactly the same way with their characterization! You're definitely not alone in how you do that!


  37. Woohoo! Excited for the book. I'll be waiting for it : )

  38. Hi Camy, timely post for me. As usual, you give excellent writing advice - and great examples!

    I'm just starting a new story and trying to figure out my characters. This one is going to be a challenge for me so I'm hoping to come up with some unique qualities for them.

    What's your take on secrets? Should every character have one?

  39. Interesting question, Carla! I don't think every character needs a secret, but a rich backstory can sometimes include a secret. I think it totally depends on the character herself.

    I also forgot to mention that critique partners can also help us develop our characters further or rein us in if we're going off the deep end. Cheryl and Danica will often tell me if they think one of my ideas sucks or if it's too complicated.


  40. I'm a big Star Trek fan. In fact, hubby and I rented the Star Trek movie to watch again last night. As I was watching it,I wasn't thinking about how unique the characters are, but you certainly nailed it. Seven of Nine was a fascinating character,but I didn't like her with Chakotay. :) Loved your NYT examples, too.

  41. Lorna--Oh my gosh I totally felt the same way about her and Chakotay! LOL