Vive la difference!

I’m putting two related questions and accompanying comments together in this post. On August 2, 2014, F wrote, I’ve found that over the course of all my stories, my characters seem to repeat a lot of the same kind of traits. Whilst I do sometimes feel like they’re independent and distinguishable and have their own voices, I feel like their personalities boil down to be very similar, not to mention that these personalities seem to have, at their core, an enlarged aspect of my own (I guess I rely on writing what I can identify with).

Although my characters aren’t carbon copies of me (thank goodness), OR carbon copies of each other, there are definitely similarities, and I’m torn between wanting to change the characters to make them unique but not wanting to lose the essence of the character as I’ve come to know them. Thoughts?

Bibliophile answered, If they’re a group of friends, and in books they normally are, then it’s okay if they have similarities. I would keep them the same, and maybe add in some little extra quirks like this: suppose Jenna and Robert are both really easygoing, happy people, but Robert blubbers at the mention of unicorns and Jenna gets really angry when she hears the word ‘elf’. That should be enough to differentiate.

And Anonymous said, What I try to do to make characters sound unique is one of two things:
-Write it and try to exaggerate all the characters’ traits and edit them down later, or
-Imagine a different character in their shoes. What would they do differently?

This related question came in from J. Garf on December 26, 2014: In nearly every story I’ve written I have the exact same character, only under a different name with very slightly varied physical features. This character is a ruthless villain (though they normally work for the true antagonist) that goes by a title instead of a name (the warden, the jailer, the sheriff, etc.), holds a position of authority that is honorable in a real community (similar to a chief of police) but is the exact same every time, and causes extreme problems for my main character. My characters usually react differently, but this default villain is so similar every time that I’m worried my readers will be bored if they read more than one of my stories. Help! How do I fix this?

Elisa weighed in with this: I HAD THE SAME PROBLEM! Default characters are bothersome. One of the best solutions is quirks! I know in a ruthless villain, you probably don’t want hilarious/lovable quirks (unless… maybe you do?) so I’d go more with subtler things. But keep them varied for each villain and INTERESTING! I do so love an interesting villain. (I mean, I hate them. I love to hate them!) Say the Warden is large and strong, the Jailer is fat, and the Sheriff is a small man. Maybe the Warden is fond of music, while the Jailer is tone deaf and the Sheriff only tolerates music, but loves ballroom dancing. The Warden can be something of an introvert, while the Jailer is downright reclusive and the Sheriff is a social butterfly… There are a wealth of differences between three individuals that have the same job (specifically the job of the Ruthless Villain). Take any two fellows who work at the same job and note their differences and then use the observations to flesh out your Ruthless Villains.

And Erica Eliza wrote, Sometimes default characters become an author’s trademark. I have a friend who’s a big Dickens fan. When we had to read TALE OF TWO CITIES in school, she was disappointed because it didn’t have a spunky orphan character.

First off: Sometimes we are a tad (or maybe more?) too hard on ourselves when we critique our own work. F, since you’ve described differences between your characters, I wonder if anyone else will see the redundancies. You may want to start by getting an objective opinion from a reader you trust. And J. Garf, I’d suggest doing the same, after you name these secondary villains, beyond their occupations. Your readers may see these characters as individuals, not as knock-offs of one another.

But assuming they really are too similar, the suggestions above are great. I love Elisa’s suggestions about the physical aspects of a character. In movies and on TV, each actor is so different in appearance, in movement, in voice quality, that–even if their roles are essentially the same–we never get confused. Think, for example, of gangsters or police. There may be, say, five on the force or in the gang, and four of the five aren’t particularly differentiated. The viewer never gets confused because they look so different. Or think of all the versions of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Moriarty that have come along; the characters are differentiated to at least some degree by appearance.

As writers we can remind our readers of how our characters look, not constantly, but often enough, and once their appearance is established, the reader will bring the image along into situations. If one character is tall, we can have the others crane their necks to look up at her. We can have the leader take her height into consideration when he plans his team’s actions. If another is especially tiny, he can be the one to fit through a basement window.

Even dress style can help. No matter the occasion, Sam looks like he just rolled out of bed, but the crease in William’s pants is always sharp enough to slice bread.

And a simple sex change will accomplish miracles in setting characters apart. Both Sam and Martha are selfish and sneaky, for example, but making them different genders will influence how we write them. I doubt there will be confusion or a feeling of sameness.

And I agree with both Elisa and Bibliophile about quirks and temperament, like introvert versus extrovert. Both comments offer terrific ideas for differentiating characters.

Of course we have to be consistent. We have to remember that Sam is chatty and Martha chooses her words carefully and raises her voice if anyone disagrees with her. We can’t put our short character in the middle of a crowd and expect him to see anything a yard away. In most circumstances we can’t make William slip in a mud puddle and not be upset about the dirt. Anonymous’s suggestion about exaggeration comes in here. If we exaggerate traits we won’t forget. It’s easy to tone down the over-the-top spots in revision.

Here are two more ideas:

If we plug actual people from our lives into our characters, they will naturally be unique. If we think of our cousin James when we write Sam, Sam will become unlike any of our other characters. As we write, we’ll see James. At meals, he reaches across three people to get the potato salad. When he walks, he leans forward as if into a strong wind. He’s not a great listener, so Martha has to be especially forceful to get his attention. If he’s our main villain’s henchman, his intrinsic loyalty will be put to (evil) use. If he’s a good character, that trait is likely to come in handy, too.

Or we can borrow from a few real people to come up with a composite Martha who is unlike anyone but herself. We can give her my late friend Nedda’s digressive conversational style, my friend Joan’s insight, and my late mother’s freakish ability to write upside down and backwards as fast as ordinary humans can write right-side up and forward.

Notice that we stay away from ourselves when we’re going to real people, since F worries about her characters’ closeness to herself, and because our characters are going, inescapably, to have some of ourselves in them, which isn’t a bad thing. We’re complex and multi-faceted!

The second idea is to think about our plot. What’s the action like? Do we have battle scenes? A trek across a mountain? Crowd scenes? Where does the tension come from? What role does this character have in the story?

Let’s imagine that Martha is Sam’s best friend, and he’s our MC. His goal is to win a competition. If he fails, the consequences will ripple out beyond himself. His family, Martha, his teammates will also be hurt. Back to Martha. How can we design her so that she both helps Sam and hinders him?

Below are three possibilities for each. You come up with three more. The choices are legion.


• Martha is a whiz at one aspect of the competition, and she’s a good teacher.

• Martha is super-calm. When anxiety gnaws at Sam, she can settle him.

• Martha believes in Sam. When he doubts himself, her confidence pulls him through.


• Martha is a pessimist. She wants Sam to win, but she expects the worst.

• Martha has needs of her own, and she draws Sam into the whirlwind of her problems.

• Martha is jealous of Sam’s abilities, even though they’re on the same side.

If we figure out how Martha can raise the tension in our story, we’ll come up with an interesting character whose nature fits our narrative.

Here are three prompts:

• Write the story of the competition. Decide what the competition is and what’s at stake. Make Martha help and hinder Sam.

• Rewrite the competition and make Martha the MC and Sam the one who assists and creates obstacles. The story may come out differently.

• Write a scene between the main villain and the Jailer, but give the Jailer a secret the villain doesn’t know about. Rewrite the scene, and if the Jailer was a man, make him a woman. Rewrite the scene, but use some of the strategies we’ve talked about for making him different from the other jailers.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thanks so much for this post, Gail! They are always the highlight of my week! Also, thanks to everyone who helped me out a few weeks back–I just started back up winter term and was so busy with classes that I didn't get to thank everyone 🙂 Also, Gail, I just bought writer to writer and am so excited to read it!! Happy New Year, everyone!! 🙂

  2. I just dropped by to let you know that I've finished reading WRITER TO WRITER, and I loved every page. I've been a follower of your blog for many years now, but the expanded text made the ideas organized, the prompts plentiful and inspiring, the information fresh. I especially liked your attention to blogging and poetry as forms of writing, as well as your analytical approach to your work and the works of others. As a part-time teacher of writing, I think it is so important to teach students to break down their work in the way that you did, questioning why an element does (or does not) work. Often, students think their writing exists in a vaccuum, but your approach to the writing process really emphasizes that self expression and communication can go hand in hand. Thanks for a great read and the continually excellent work you do here.

  3. That's a problem I share as far as basing my MC on myself. I think it's hard because we put characters in situations and think "How would he/she react?" but many times what it boils down to is "How would I react?" because that is what is familiar. Sometimes I come up with a list of possible reactions and then think, which is really the character's reaction and which is just my personality?

  4. I haven't posted on here in a while, but I have been reading! Thanks for all the great posts, Gail! I especially liked this week's. I started out as the sort of writer who wrote characters based on real people (or even, in a few instances, real pets. What? Animals have personalities! ;)). However, I've noticed in my more recent works I've drifted away from that approach – more or less inventing a brand new person off the top of my head. I'm not sure if this is because I've subconsciously developed a better approach or if I just don't put as much thought into my characters these days. Hmm… I think I'll try using the first method again with one of my new characters and see which way works better right now.

    As you can see, this post has been very thought provoking:)

    I did have one question for everyone – any thoughts appreciated! I have one character who is extremely quick-witted, and in my books he is always the one who makes escape plans/rescue plans/strategies on the spot. My brother suggested, when I first started writing him, that when I'm narrating from his point of view, to have him plan everything out in his head before it happens, like this:
    "For the split second that Riana was in the air, Marc planned. The man was staring at Riana, so Marc would have the advantage of surprise. He would grab Natasha’s leash lying on the counter and immediately swing the heavy end of the leash around the front of the man so that it would wrap around his neck. As the leash swung around, he would grab the man’s gun with his free hand. He’d catch the leash and pull, while kneeing the man in the back. That would push him down onto the ground and leave him completely at Marc’s mercy. Then Marc could simply pull until the man passed out.
    Marc instantly put his plan into action, and in a moment, his victim was on the ground."

    I know that this exerpt is not the greatest, but it was the shortest planning scene I could find. Please bear with me:)

    Anyway, I just recently watched a Sherlock Holmes movie – I think it was called "Game of Shadows," or something like that. Has anyone seen it? Throughout the movie, Sherlock constantly has planning scenes like this in his head – exactly like this. It turns out, this is where my brother got the idea, and, without realizing it, I copied the movie. Is that a problem? I'm worried now, because I hate to copy. Can anyone think of a better way to show my character's quick-whit without having to copy Sherlock Holmes?


    • I don't think it's necessarily the similarity you should worry about – to me, although I like the planning, it seems to kind of slow down the momentum and tension of the scene. What if you simply tell the reader he plans, but then go through the plan by telling it as it happens? That's just a suggestion, and I don't know if that even makes any sense. And if you do decide to keep it the way it is, I don't think it sounds too similar – don't worry, I'm also paranoid about my work being too close to another novel/movie. I hope this helps!

    • Yes, I agree with Bibliophile. It would be a bit difficult to deal with if this sort of thing happened too very often. It's good, but "too much cake will make your stomach ache." Also, another thing to keep in mind, even the most clever character can't have every plan go perfectly. It might be nice if Marc happened to mess up every now and again just to add a little realism and interest. Personally, I prefer a character who makes mistakes (this doesn't mean every mistake has to be for the worst, some of them can end up making Marc's plans go even more perfectly, but still, some mistakes have to be made). Also, no matter how well planned a thing is, you have to take into account the fact that other people will interfere (purposefully or accidentally) and mess up even the most intricately perfect plan. Again, interference doesn't always have to be bad, it can end up being for the best, but there has to be some interference. These are just some of my thoughts, I'm not trying to say that what you've written is bad, it's not, I'm just giving a few observations. A book that I think would really help you with creating Marc is "The Thief" by Megan Whalen Turner. It is EXCELLENT and whenever I have trouble with my cleverer characters, I read one of the books inf Ms. Turner's "The Queen's Thief" Series. Those books are centered around the cleverest most intricate characters I have ever come across. There is a little swearing, but other than that there isn't really anything to worry about. Hope I was able to help a little.

    • One more though (sorry): Instead of going into the planning before hand, wright the actions and beforehand mention that he started planning out his moves, without saying what those moves are, then during the action maybe say "Just as Marc had planned, Mr. Wilkerson stepped out of the alley and was instantly bowled over by the runaway doberman." etc. Then, after it happened, you can say that everything had gone according to Marc's plan, and you can mention whatever glitches might have happened and how they affected the action.

    • Thanks everyone! That really helps! I only have about six or seven of these scenes in the entire book, I think, but I think I'll go back and experiment with different ways to do away with them – thanks for all the great suggestions!

  5. I started reading Writer to Writer : Think to Ink and I abseloutly love it! It is an amazing book. It helps me so much while writing. Thank you so much for writing this book. You are a great inspiration to me and I hope to publish a book one day! I really want to be a great writer, but once I get to one part of the story, in this case where a girl figures out she has powers, I want her to be all surprised and shocked and yet sad about being the only one who has this power and not "normal". I don't know how to express this character in someway that is believable. Because writing "oh!" doesn't really show much surprise. So my problem is just getting people to believe that this is real dialogue that an actual human would say, not a fake character. And I have another problem, getting the character to realize her power in someway that isn't so "original", as in a way that other writers haven't used. For example in one book this girl realizes she has powers at school by making a fool out of herself in class, I like that idea, but I don't want to "copy" it and I want to think of a creative way. Can you give me some tips and pointers for these problems? Thanks, it would really help me to be a better writer 😉

  6. Hello y'all! I have a problem and I want to ask a question akin to he one I asked a few weeks ago: What do you like to see in your MC's love interest when the MC is a man? See I have this guy (Amias) who is sort-of an MC, not fully, but the story centers around him a lot. He is not the character I consider my MC, but he's a very major character anyways. I want to set him up with a woman called Iona, but I am finding it increasingly hard to figure out how to portray Iona. Amias is a pretty awesome guy, and I want Iona to measure up, but I CANNOT figure out how to make her a good, acceptable match for Amias. I have read a LOT of love interests for the Main Guy that I really disliked. Some examples would be: Imogen, from "The False Prince". Winter, from the "Conspiracy 365" series. Frankie, from "Knightly Academy". Going into movies: Arwen from "Lord of the Rings". Tauriel from "The Hobbit". Giselle from "Enchanted". Megara from "Hercules" I wasn't that impressed with these characters. I don't want Iona ending up like any of them. But I'm not sure how to handle her. I don't want her shallow And fluff-headed like Giselle. I don't want her dull and flat, like Imogen. I don't want her tomboyish to a fault, tomboyish to the point of getting her friends deeply in trouble, like Frankie. I don't want her to be "mysterious" and "fascinating" like Winter and Megara. I don't want her so desperately dependent on her man that she either gets him in trouble, or herself in trouble, or both, like Arwen and a few other supposed "heroines" that I won't mention for time's sake. I don't want her to be shallow but gorgeous with cool fighting skills, like Tauriel. I want her to be capable of handle herself and strong without making her too good and overshadowing Amias. I want her to be smart and practical without making her too "perfect"? I want her to be a lady, not a tomboy. I want her to be sophisticated and interesting, instead of "mysterious and fascinating". How do I do this and make her an interesting character instead of a Mary Sue?

    • Now that you've figured out what you don't like, look at female love interests you do like. What kind of girl is this guy attracted to, and more importantly, what does he need? A brilliant lady? A manipulative lady? A superpowered lady? Draw traits from women in your own life, history, and media.

    • I agree with carpelibris – instead of thinking of it as trying to develop a love interest, think of it as developing a character. I disliked many of the characters that you've listed because I felt that the author/creator thought, "gee, I need a love interest/female character" and just threw a generic one in. Don't make the most interesting thing about her that she is in love with the MC – make her a fully developed character with her own thoughts, ideas, and goals who just so happens to love the MC.

  7. 'Kay, sorry, me again…I need to find a superpower that is incompatible with blindness. Something that my girl, Cherish will have a hard time doing, what with her being blind and all. Just to make things really interesting. I've run out of ideas, but this is mainly because I've been remodeling the superpowers (My characters call them "Gifts") of nearly fifty characters and my mind is drawing a blank. Any help will be appreciated! Thanks.

  8. Well, that was my first thought, but after toying with it for a while I finally discarded it because I decided that I wanted her to be able to use her Gift more-or-less, but I want it be quite hard and go wring sometimes, she wouldn't really be able to use laser vision at all. There is one more thing that contributed to my rejection of laser vision and several other vision-centered Gifts: I decided that if your gift affects your sight or your hearing, it isn't like normal sight or hearing, meaning you couldn't use it. Thank you for the suggestion though. Now I really want a character with laser vision. Marquis might be a good character for that particular Gift…

    • Grrr, spell-check drives me MAD! What I meant to say is"if your Gift affects your sight or hearing, you can't LOSE it."
      not "if your Gift affects your sight or hearing you can't USE it." Botheration!

    • You could do something where she gets information from touching things. So if she were to touch a book, she could know what it was written about, or who touched it forty years ago, or where it was made, etc. That could malfunction in the sense that she could get too MUCH information from things, and not be able to sort through the useless info to stuff of real importance. I don't know. Your book sounds very interesting!

  9. Well, I'm in a good mood today. When I was sixteen I set a goal to write six books before I graduated high school. Twenty minutes ago I was literally typing the last word on the last book when my mom called up to say I had the package. My copy of Writer to Writer came! Signing off to read now.

  10. Mrs. Levine, I finished Writer to Writer, and I loved it! It was so much fun to read, and I had a big smile on my face the whole time. I reeeeally enjoyed the section on poetry!

  11. Gail, this is unrelated to your post, sorry, but I just had to tell you!

    Currently, I work part time as a cafeteria cashier at a small K-12 school. During elementary lunch today, a fourth-grade girl walked by with "Ella Enchanted" on her tray along with her lunch.

    I said, "That is a good book. She's one of my favorite authors."

    The girl quipped, "Yeah, but there's always one thing wrong with Gail Carson Levine books." She made a face and said, "There's always kissing."

    I couldn't help it, I burst out laughing. She'll change her mind in a couple of years. 🙂

  12. Dear Ms. Levine,
    I am in 5th grade and have been very inspired by your blog ever since I found out about it and have a question myself. Earlier I had been writing short books that had good ideas, but were not suspenseful at all and leaving me with absolutely no reason to turn the page. Then I started planning for other books and as I started to write them, I realized that the only way I knew to make my books suspenseful was to add in lots of drama and people dying. The problem is that that's not how I want my books to be like, so how do I make a good, suspenseful book without making it a blood-and-gore horror story. (Perhaps I have been taking your advice "make your characters suffer" a bit far……)

    • I'm adding your question to my list, but it will be a while before I get to it. In the meanwhile, readers will be in suspense if they care about your main character and he or she needs something or wants something or is in trouble. No one has to die.

    • Bouncing off what Mrs. Levine said, if your main character has a goal, and there are worrisome obstacles between him/her and that goal, that goes a long way in creating suspense.

      "Suffering" doesn't have to be physical. It can be as simple as enduring a long wait for something they want, or encountering trouble with schoolmates, or adjusting to a new situation. Hope this helps! 🙂

    • I recently just finished the "False Prince" series, and it's a great example of creating suspense without inflicting horrific suffering. The main character in this series is constantly in trouble, and something always happens, no matter what. He is constantly put into situations that seem impossible to get out of, and yet he always manages to do so. For me, I am always in suspense reading these books because I'm worried that maybe, just maybe, he won't get out of it this time. A lot of times, the character's situation gets worse and worse until it gets better. It's a hook–I have never been able to put a single one of the books down from beginning to end. Very few people die in the series, yet it is dripping–oozing–with suspense. I hope that helped, even a little! I have a hard time creating suspense too, but reading this series helped me understand it better 🙂 Good luck with your stories!!

    • You don't need people to die, you just need things to go wrong. Kenzi Anne gave a very good example. You really should read that series, I recommend it, it is crazy good! Really, what makes them so suspenseful is that Sage/Jaron get CAUGHT! GASP! His plans do not always go perfectly and he and other people sometimes end up getting hurt because of it. In fact, sometimes it gets so bad that you really can't see how it could get any worse. And then it does. But, once they get to the point where it is actually painful to read, it goes so right that it makes everything good (until it goes wrong again, and then it hurts). That's how you do suspense. Things get so bad they can't get any worse and then they do. But just because things are bad doesn't mean people have to die. Bad things can include getting captured by the enemy, getting an arm or leg broken (I find it exceptionally hard to break my characters' bones), losing something important. It doesn't have to be gory, it just has to MATTER. If your MC loves his books, TAKE THEM AWAY! If he loves his sister KIDNAP HER. If he loves his teddy bear DESTROY IT IN A HUGE FIREBALL OF DIABOLICAL TOXIC STUFF!!!!!!!!!!!!! You don't have to add lots of guts (Actually, it cuts down on suspense if there is lots of violence continually, for maximum impact, use violence sparingly, use the other stuff first and violence can be the cherry on top of your Extract of Suspense Sunday), you just have to find what your MC likes AND TAKE. IT. AWAY!!!!!!! (Also, lots of midnight chases and death defying leaps are good too.)

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