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!