I’d like you to meet someone.
This is Normal Tim:
He hangs around in your brain being silently compared to every new person you meet. Whenever you see someone that makes you think “Now THIS person is unique!” or “This dude’s a real CHARACTER!” you’re contrasting him with Normal Tim, the default human ideal in your mind.
Normal Tim’s normalcy is mainly in his reactions. If you scare him, he will be scared. If you give him a present, he will be happy and thank you. If you insult him, he will be hurt and maybe a little angry.
We want the characters we design to STAND OUT in the reader/viewer’s mind. We have other goals for them, of course–whether it’s to highlight some interesting aspect of humanity or allow the reader/viewer to experience something profound or powerful–but if the character doesn’t stand out and make an impression on the reader, those goals become exponentially harder to reach.
We, as reader/viewers, LOVE characters that are DIFFERENT.
And we LOVE seeing that UNIQUENESS expressed in strong ways.
Question: How can we write characters like this?
The way I do this is to ask the following question:
“What is something THIS character would do that Normal Tim would NEVER do?”
Let’s go to some EXAMPLES!
You’re a kid. You’re behind the wheel of a car going 80mph. You’re being chased by the police. You’re headed towards a cliff.
How does Normal Tim react?
Normal Tim is possibly crying, possibly praying for a life-saving miracle, possibly wondering where he went wrong in his young life. More than anything, Normal Tim is paralyzed by his fear.
How does James T. Kirk react?
James T. Kirk is doing the OPPOSITE of crying. He’s shouting joyously, having the time of his life.
He’s making fancy maneuvers to lose the policeman (policebot?). He heads STRAIGHT for the cliff, and as the car plunges off into the abyss–not at ALL paralyzed by his fear–Kirk epically launches himself from the speeding car.
Continuing with the Star Trek theme…
You’re in a bar. You’re flirting with a hot gal. She’s clearly looking down on you for being a country boy. When you make an attempt to impress her with your knowledge of her academic field, she says, “For a moment there, I thought you were just a dumb hick who only has sex with farm animals…”
How would Normal Tim respond?
Or possibly even, “@#$% YOU!”
How does James T. Kirk respond?
Uhura: “For a moment there, I thought you were just a dumb hick who only has sex with farm animals…”
Kirk: “Well… not ONLY…”
And Uhura laughs.
You’re still flirting with the hot girl. All of a sudden, a big brutish guy comes over all up in your business. After you let a flirty joke slip to the girl, Mr Brute tells you to mind your manners.
Normal Tim: *averting his eyes* “I’m sorry. You’re right. I’ll leave.”
Kirk: *pats Mr Brute on the shoulder* “Relax, cupcake, it was a joke!”
Mr Brute: *angry* “Hey farm boy! Maybe you can’t count, but there are FOUR of us and ONE of you!”
Normal Tim: *cowers/possibly wets his pants* “Please don’t hurt me!”
Kirk: *looks Mr Brute in the eye* “So get some more guys and then it’ll be an even fight.” *pats Mr Brute on the cheek*
AND fight breaks out…
JJ Abrams is BRILLIANT at coming up with these little scenes that highlight the DISTINCTNESS (distinction?) of his characters. It would seem he’s aware of Normal Tim Methodology from how how easily he pulls off a more advanced version of the technique with Spock.
With Spock, OF COURSE he’s going to be different than Normal Tim. After all, Normal Tim is human, and Spock is a Vulcan. What Abrams wants to show is make Spock stand out EVEN among other Vulcans!
So he quickly establishes a clear, simple picture of what Vulcan Tim looks like.
Normal Tim as a kid would be of average intelligence; Vulcan Tim knows all these answers to super advanced math/science/philosophy questions.
If Normal Tim was approached by bullies he’d be all stammery and afraid.
Vulcan Tim says what kid-Spock said, “I presume you’ve prepared new insults for today.”
Normal Tim bullies would answer, “Yes.”
Vulcan Tim bullies answer, “Affirmative.”
The mood of the scene is calm, whereas a similar scene full of Normal Tims would be heated and tense. The tone of voice is monotonous and empty of emotion; Normal Tims would be angry and threatening.
And so on.
Stop there, and Vulcan Tim has been established. We get Vulcans as a culture, which now stands out as distinct from that of Normal Tim. Both Spock and the Bullies are, as far as we know, average your average Vulcan Tims.
THEN Abrams differentiates Spock from the other Vulcans.
The Vulcan bullies call his mother a “whore.”
And Spock goes psycho.
Differentiate Vulcan Tim from Normal Tim –>
Differentiate Spock from Vulcan Tim –>
Spock’s character now stands out as SUPER distinct
These examples were just about establishing character. These scenes had little impact on the plot.
Where the Normal Tim Methodology TRULY shines is when it brings together character AND plot. In other words, when the ENTIRE plot is something that Normal Tim would NEVER do.
—Warning: Massive ONE PIECE Spoilers—
Scenario: Your brother has just been arrested. He’s the most high profile criminal the government has ever captured even though YOU know he’s innocent. His execution set to occur only days from now.
What does Normal Tim do?
He mourns the inevitable loss of his brother.
What does Monkey D Luffy do?
He decides to go to the infamous prison where his brother is being held–a prison NO ONE has EVER broken out of–break INTO the prison and THEN break OUT again, with his brother!
If a character has something special we admire/relate to/find interesting, scenes that make him stand out give us an outlet for that admiration/identification/thought. When you have an ENTIRE plotline that showcases a character, that enjoyment spreads to the ENTIRE experience of the story.
—-END OF SPOILERS—-
I should note that all the examples we explored were a character reacting in a way that was particularly STRONGER than Normal Tim. This doesn’t have to be the case at all. For example, a sensitive character can be showcased by falling to pieces at the smallest insult (which Normal Tim would just brush off).
Also noteworthy is that making character stand out like this is not a necessity. It’s great for certain kinds of stories, but perhaps for a very plot-driven story it would come off as excessive or distracting. Another reason not to use the Normal Tim Methodology is if you WANT your character to be a Normal Tim. Sometimes, even the Normalest of Tims is a PERFECT protagonist for a story.