You don’t have to be a fan of old movies to know that whenever a gentleman wearing a bowler hat, holding a cane and waddling rather than walking appears on screen that it’s Charlie Chaplin as his signature character, the Little Tramp. The character’s innocent mischievousness is so endearing that his appeal transcended cultural evolution and remains as beloved today as when Chaplin introduced him to audiences 100 years ago.
Although the Little Tramp was created for film, he’s a good example of how certain physical characteristics—the waddle walk and clumsy nature—and even props—like ever-present walking canes(See it on Amazon here)—can not only give characters personality, but also long-lasting recognition with fans. Read on for more examples of how authors developed distinguishing characteristics for their characters.
Ian Fleming’s James Bond
When he walks into some exotic bar and orders one very particular drink, you know immediately who is taking center stage. Of course, the others in the bar need to discover his identity, too. So, without missing a beat, the man introduces himself to the gorgeous woman sitting next to him as, “Bond, James Bond.” It would be impossible to picture this iconic super spy of both literature and cinema without some fancy suit and martini in hand…shaken not stirred, of course.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter
We’ve experienced Harry Potter growing up in the pages of the seven-book series. His battles against the dark wizard, Voldemort, and all of his (frankly, incredibly dangerous) adventures have tested Harry’s maturity with each new term at Hogwarts. But just pause a moment and try to envision how young Mr. Potter would look without that defining lightning-bolt scar or rounded spectacles. Nor could the plot evolve without his wand. In book one, the wand seemed like just another odd school supply, but by the last entry, Rowling revealed how pivotal it was to the entire story.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Frodo
One ring to find them, one ring to rule them, one ring to make a character. Frodo’s great quest to destroy the ring of power in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy thrust multiple changes upon him. Almost nothing resembling the naive young hobbit who left his uncle’s home in the Shire remained. There was one thing, one fundamental item that distinguished him from his fellow hobbits who aided on the journey, the ring of Sauron. While Frodo took physical possession of the ring, the band became a character onto itself, always whispering and plotting its own goals. Frodo and the ring had different agendas, but readers will forever link them together.
Sydney Newman’s The Doctor
The Doctor, more commonly known as Doctor Who, has undergone many a transformation over the years. From looks, personality, demeanor, everything changed with each regeneration of this infamous time lord. One may wonder, with each incarnation making the Doctor an entirely new and different person, what is his trademark? Through all the transformations, his starship remains the same. There’s also his trusty all-in-one tool, the sonic screwdriver, which is useful for anything and everything the Doctor could possibly need.
Perhaps the fictional characters with the most distinctive trademarks are comic book heroes and villains. Their outfits are more than costumes, they are part of the mystique. Their gadgets are more than an interesting plot twist, they are key to the super powers that set them apart from mere mortals. The bad guys also have unique attributes, often identified by their names, such as the Sandman, Joker, and Sinestro.
So when developing a story’s characters, think about how you can set them apart by giving them specific names, behaviors, physical qualities or even props that will become their trademarks.