Friday, June 14, 2013

What Makes Your Work Unique?

Standing out in the slush pile is easier said than done. What makes your work fresh and one-of-a-kind? If you’re searching for a way to spice up your writing, I’ve found it’s helpful to think about what makes you unique. Are you an ambulance driver? Do you have a huge family? Have you battled a rare disease? Are you left-handed? Whether it’s big or little, anything that makes you extraordinary can hook your reader, because it provides a window into an unfamiliar world. A trait or experience that seems insignificant to you could be intriguing to someone else (consider reality shows, if you don't believe me). This may sound like more of a nonfiction trick, but oftentimes, our fictional characters carry little pieces of ourselves as well. Here are some basic categories to get you thinking:

Personal Experiences
Write down all the jobs you’ve had or the places you’ve visited or the things you’ve crossed off your bucket list. There’s probably something that other people would like to hear about! Your memories are a cornucopia of great material. For example, when I was 18, I was a passenger in a car accident. The Neon we were in flipped 3-4 times-- very scary! But now I feel as though I can write about the fear and chaos and physical effects of an accident authentically, and I had a fun time including one in my most recent manuscript. Even something as commonplace as a car wreck can really add depth to your work when you are writing from personal experience.

H.C.'s good old Carnegie library, a place where I
spent much of my youth.
Think about your family, your hometown, your childhood friends, or the places you frequented, like a church or school or restaurant. What makes your history different from someone else's? Is there anything about your growing-up years that was particularly significant or uncommon? I can dig around here quite a bit. I grew up poor in the country outside a small midwestern town, an only child, bookish and nerdy in a family that was anything but, and those are just the “big picture” facts. No one has a story like yours-- don’t be afraid to tell it!

Physical Characteristics
This might seem like a strange one, but the way we look and the condition of our bodies has a definite effect on how we live our lives and how we are treated by those around us. What do people notice when they first meet you? What makes you stand out? It can be something obvious or not-so-obvious. Me, I think I’m pretty average-looking in every way except one: I’m a 6’ tall woman. My height has affected everything from who I choose to date to what clothes I’m able to wear. If you give your character an unusual trait like that, making note of how it colors their experiences will add a layer of believability to your work.

Personality Traits
How do you act? What’s your Myers-Briggs type? (ISTJ FTW!) What do people say they like or dislike about you? Inject your vices and virtues into characters. Whether you’re hot-tempered or softhearted or a party animal, adding those traits to characters in your work helps round them out. And since you already know all about it, it’s not even hard! As for me, I have a tendency to write quiet/shy protagonists, because that’s how I am. On the other hand, one of my earliest characters was a girl who was exceedingly outgoing and charming, which was a great exercise as well!

Have you used your personal experiences and attributes in your writing? What makes you (and your work) unique? 


  1. Nice post, Kiley. It's so true that we can made really well-rounded characters by writing what we know. That's probably why that advice can be so helpful. I was a military kid who got to spend my four high school years in Bonn, Germany, in the embassy community there. I need to mine some of those experiences for my writing. . . good advice!

  2. You're six feet tall? Wow. Very cool. Good post! It is important to stand out. I probably need to include more of my experiences.