I've noticed several blogs recently have discussed the phenomena known as the "special snowflake", a weird pop culture term generally used to describe a character who places a great deal of importance upon how different they are from the rest of the herd. Generally, the term is used to insult or criticize a character.
Although I've criticized characters as being special snowflakes before, I found myself thinking about the somewhat broad and nebulous definition of the term and wondering about something in particular.
Where does one draw the line between a unique character and a special snowflake? Is there a line at all, or is it based purely upon personal opinion?
The reason I ask this is because you could classify playing a peculiar race/class combination or playing a good-aligned character belonging to a normally evil-aligned race as a special snowflake if you stretch the definition far enough. Do we separate the unique characters from the special snowflakes the same way some people jokingly separate homages from rip-offs based upon their quality? Is one man's unique character another person's special snowflake?
After thinking about this question for a little while, I've determined my own personal method for separating the two ideas.
Personally, I believe the deciding factor is based upon intent and focus. Characters who are made with the sole purpose of being different and said difference is their defining trait, I'd most likely label that creation as a special snowflake. However, if the differences are used as just starting points to create interesting characteristics and ideas, then I'd refrain from giving the character the negative label.
Let's look at an example to illustrate what I'm talking about. You've just joined a new campaign and you're attempting to create your new character. You decide you want to play a dwarf wizard who dislikes alcohol, preferring tea. The character would be a special snowflake if these differences were the only things that defined the character and would leave a hollow shell if taken away. The character would be spared the label if these were just used as bits and pieces to help you build an interesting character with a developed personality and backstory that explains your choices.
The reason I decided to rely upon intention & focus to identify special snowflakes is because I want to make it clear that creating characters that go against the grain and utilize concepts that aren't "normal" isn't a bad thing or automatically makes it something worth ridicule. As long as you use those things as blueprints to add upon and build from, you should be good.