Let’s face it, the most memorable types of characters are the ones who don’t follow the rules. They’re the kind of characters who think for themseleves and seem to be able to get away with saying things that most people wouldn’t dare to say and doing things most people wouldn’t dare to do.
Let’s face it, rebels are just a lot more memorable and compelling than ordinary and unremarkable characters. This is why, to use an old example, Robin Hood is a pretty famous and well-recognised character compared to, say, the Sheriff Of Nottingham.
Chances are, when you read about these characters, there’s at least a small part of your soul that wishes that you were more like them. And, if you don’t “fit in” in with the society around you in any way, then it can be refreshing to see a positively-portrayed character who doesn’t fit in rather than seeing such characters being demonised or seen as “freaks”.
Anyway, these kind of characters tend to be very slightly more common in comics than in prose fiction (eg: Spider Jerusalem from Warren Ellis’s excellent “Transmetropolitan” comics or Tank Girl in Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s amazing “Tank Girl” comics) but they appear in pretty much any medium which can be used to tell a story. They’re that cool. So, how do you create a character like this?
1) What is their philosophy? If someone is rebelling against something – whether it is a corporation, religion, society or culture – then there’s usually a reason for it. So, if you’re writing a rebellious character, make sure you know why they’re rebelling. This may be due to their experiences and/or it may just be due to their personality and worldview – whatever it is, make sure you know what it is before you start your story.
Yes, James Dean may have inspired the whole “rebel without a cause” thing back in the 1950s, but your “rebel” character is first and foremost a character. As such, they should have a decent amount of characterisation. Creating a two-dimensional character who exists purely to rebel against things just for the sake of it may work in a comedy story or as a background character who only appears briefly, but your character will probably be fairly two-dimensional in any other context.
So, if one of your main characters is a “rebel”, then you should work out why they’re rebelling against everything and you should show your readers why they’re rebelling too. You should at least give your readers a brief glimpse into their philosophy, worldview and emotions.
After all, how can your readers empathise with your character if they don’t even know who they are and why they are the person they are.
2) Subtle can be better: Sometimes the most compelling and inspiring “rebel” characters aren’t the ones who go around giving the finger to anyone in a uniform or playing outrageous pranks on people in authority. They’re the ones who are more quietly subversive, the kind of people who don’t fit in and don’t give a damn about it. They’re the kind of people who have unusual interests or unorthodox lives and yet still seem to somehow survive and thrive in this stiflingly conformist world. Sometimes it might even seem like they live in their own world. In many ways, this is probably more of an introverted form of rebellion than an extroverted form of rebellion.
These kinds of characters might seem a lot harder to write than more outwardly-rebellious characters, but they’re not too difficult to write. Basically, just make your character into someone who isn’t afraid to be herself or himself regardless of what anyone else thinks. It’s that simple.
3) Dialogue: Yes, rebellious characters can get away with saying some pretty outrageous things and, if they’re well-written enough, these can be both hilariously funny and thought-provoking. And, yes, some of the best “rebel” characters can turn swearing and insults into an art form on a par with Russian Mat. But, at the same time, if they’re going to say something outrageous, then it has to be inventive and well-written.
In other words, your character isn’t inherently rebellious just because they use a lot of four-letter words. Pretty much everyone does this when they’re angry or shocked or in suitably informal company – it’s nothing special. Plus, using the same word repeatedly in your character’s dialogue can also get kind of dull and repetitive after a while too.
So, either save all of the best words in the English language for special occasions in your story and/or give your character’s dialogue a highly-descriptive and almost poetic feel.
4) Honesty: The best “rebel” characters usually end up illustrating some fundamental truth or other about either the society they live in or the human condition in general. They make people question the structures, society and cultural narratives surrounding them. In other words, they’re honest characters who think. This doesn’t mean that they never lie, cheat or steal but it means that they see the world in a more honest way or they speak truths about the world that those in power would rather everyone didn’t really think about.
At the same time, don’t make your “rebel” character too heavily political either. After all, political fanatics (of all types) usually end up being as bad, despotic, flawed and/or annoying as the people they’re opposing.
5) Subcultures: If you’re a lazy writer, then you’ll probably try to make your character a “rebel” by putting them into one of the cooler subcultures in the world (eg: punk, goth, heavy metal etc…) and turning them into a cliche or a stereotype.
Now, whilst it’s likely that your character might be drawn to these subcultures because they value independent thought and looking at the world in a slightly different way, your character will probably already have these qualities before they discover the subculture. They don’t suddenly magically become “rebellious” just because they wear a particular type of clothes or listen to a particular type of music – all of these things should just be expressions of your character’s unique personality and not a substitute for it.
If someone tries really hard to “perfectly” fit into a subculture, then they aren’t a rebel. They’re fashionable. And fashion is the opposite of rebellion. Think about it.
I hope that this article was useful 🙂 If you want any more inspiration, then check out this hilarious clip from “Red Dwarf”.