Normal people never really make an impression. If you’re walking down the street and see a dozen perfectly average folks, dressed well and walking in a straight line, you’re not likely to remember any of them.
But when you see a scruffy looking fellow digging around in the trash can on the street corner, you probably go home and tell someone. Or when you see a lady hunched over and rocking back and forth outside the drug store, perhaps you even stop to make sure she’s alright.
We’re trained to believe that the only activity worth mentioning in a story is exterior (hair color, arm gesture, “Then he crossed the street.”)—something we’re able to see, identify, and describe.
But that’s a misconception—and the thrill—about telling stories. There isn’t just one type of activity. There are TWO.
Outside. Yes, there are all the weird quirks and habits that people have that we can see. Like how your aunt always puts mustard on her scrambled eggs, or how your next door neighbor puts a leash on his cat and takes it walking. These are the tangible parts of a story that help us see what’s going on. They pique our interest, fascinate us, and make us stare a little bit. After all, when someone’s doing something weirdddd, it’s a little bit hard to look away.
Inside. This is the unacknowledged part of every narrative, but it’s actually the more important of the two. Maybe only two in ten people are doing something odd on the outside—but ten out of ten people are experiencing a specific emotion in their hearts or minds. Outside, the lady at the grocery store is completely normal. But inside, she’s worried about raising her children alone, wondering why her ex-husband really left her, and hoping that the repairs on her car won’t cost too much. And it’s the inside story that makes readers be able to relate to the characters. And it’s the inside story that keeps people coming back to a character again and again. Because even if he’s simply unremarkable on the outside, I just feel like he’s so . . . real.
Should you create weird characters? People who save seats for their invisible friends at the opera and collect worms from the dirt in Central Park? Absolutely. But more importantly, remember to make them interesting from the inside out. Fill them with human ideas, concerns, and struggles. Make them someone you’d want to be friends with, and your readers will want to be friends with them too.