Before the post–drum roll! A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, is out! Hope you read it and enjoy it! If you haven’t already, I did a virtual launch on Facebook on May 14th following my usual daily reading. In it, I talk about the book and my research and take questions. You can see and hear it here: https://www.facebook.com/GailCarsonLevine/videos/3570405463045222/ If you’d like a bookplate-signed book, you can buy one at Byrd’s Books: https://byrdsbooks.indielite.org/.

Onto the post. On December 9, 2019, Superb♥Girl wrote, I feel like my two main characters are too similar, and I want them to be foils to each other. Y’all have any advice for creating opposites?

Several of you responded:

Erica: In some ways, similarities in personality can create more interesting situations than different personalities. That being said, change the less prominent character more than the more prominent character, and change only one thing at a time. That way, you can assess each change individually.

Melissa Mead: Show a point where they were both in a difficult situation, and made very different choices.

Blue Rive: I don’t know about creating foils–I’d like to learn how to do that better as well–but for making characters different, consider giving them defining quirks. For example, I have one character who’s very rational and thinks through everything she does logically, and then her friend wants to be a storyteller and thinks about things emotionally, plus has a very lyrical way of speaking and thinking.

For foils–I lied: I do have advice–make their personalities very different (though they don’t have to be opposite) but their actions (Catra and Glimmer from She-Ra) or backstories (Mura and Rat from The Nameless City) very similar.

These are great!

I’d never thought of Erica’s suggestion, to change the less prominent character more significantly than the most important one, and I like it, because it should make the revision easier and may lead to fewer plot adjustments.

The discussion about personality and action makes me think of my parents, who died over thirty years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve told this anecdote here a long time ago. They were a love match. They squabbled sometimes, but my sister and I always knew that they loved each other–theirs was a romance that kept going.

Personality-wise, they were very different. My father showed three emotional states: joy, anger, and quiet (when something troubled him). Joy predominated, luckily for my sister and me. He didn’t reveal his inner life to anyone but my mother. She, on the other hand, presented emotional complexity–worried about everything, sometimes went into rages, had a bitter sense of humor, was afraid to show that she was happy (though we knew she was, fundamentally). Of course I loved them both, but she, prickly as she was, was easier to get close to.

When I was grown up and married, my husband David wanted to change jobs. After an interview, he brought home copies of the personality test he’d been given, which was pages and pages long. It may have been Myers-Briggs, which has come up several times here. I took the test at home. I don’t remember the results, but I came out quite differently from David. The next time we saw my parents, I gave each of them the test.

My mother completed it in the room where we all were, and she was finished in five or ten minutes. My father needed silence and shut the door behind him on an empty bedroom. He didn’t emerge for forty-five minutes.

When we scored it, they had each answered every single question identically!

First off, there are two strategies locked up in my anecdote for creating characters who differ from each other. One has been discussed a lot on the blog, that we can use Myers-Briggs or other personality tests to invent our characters. The other is, we can look around at real people we know or knew and use bits of them in our characters. Living (or dead) people offer traits we may not imagine out of our heads. We can write a short description of, say, seven actual people. Then we can stare at what we have and consider how we can use the descriptions in our stories.

Also, this anecdote makes me think about Melissa Mead’s comment. Real people and fictional ones are defined by their actions. Many factors shape personality, but two are certainly what happens to us and what we do about it.

My mother was an adolescent during the Depression. She never talked about that time, but I know the family was very poor, and there may have been times they didn’t have enough to eat, which I don’t doubt fueled her worrying. She was insanely (and sometimes embarrassingly) frugal. In a restaurant, for instance, after everyone had eaten the bread the server brought, she’d ask for more and stuff the second helping into her purse!

My father had a terrible childhood growing up in an orphanage. His joy may have been fueled by the certainty that everything in his future had to be better than that. He was a risk-taker and started his own business.

But it isn’t always so straightforward. My mother’s ethics when it came to property were slippery. If, when she was clothes shopping, for example, she liked a dress that had belt loops but no belt, she’d be outraged and would help herself to a matching belt. (She was never caught, and I would have pitied any store detective who nabbed her!)

My father professed to be horrified by this tendency in her, but I once saw him behave just as dodgily. He took me to a farm stand to buy corn, and, on the way, told me that the farmer always gave customers an extra ear when they bought a dozen. This time the farmer didn’t. When we got home, to my astonishment and dismay, he produced a thirteenth ear, which he’d pilfered.

I hasten to add that their children didn’t inherit our parents’ propensity to steal!

So two stressed childhoods, which were differently stressed, produced both similar and dissimilar actions. Same with our characters. While we distinguish them, we can also create likenesses, which will surprise readers. When something happens, we can decide on their responses, which will be predictable and not predictable.

Voice, like action, is a tool for character development. If these characters alternate POV, we can distinguish their voices. One can narrate in long, multi-clause sentences, that display an impressive vocabulary. The other voice can be direct, simple–short sentences and short words. One can often ask questions. The other can use exclamations. The narrations can reveal their inner lives. Going back to my parents, one inner life can be anxious, the other brimming with optimism. My WIP has two POV characters, one for the first half of the book, the other for the second. The first half is in the past tense, the second in present. I’m hoping that simply changing tense will go a long way toward differentiating them.

If we’re not writing in first person, or if only one MC narrates, we can use dialogue in the same way as I described in the last paragraph.

We can set up an argument between the two characters that will highlight their differences. In an argument, more than words and volume set people and characters apart. Again, it’s worth thinking about real people here. Some retreat into silence. Some play down a problem, others exaggerate it. There are physical differences, too. A friend’s eyebrows slant up alarmingly when she’s angry. A cousin tends to drum on something withe his fingertips. We can make a list!

Here are three prompts:

• We return to “The Three Little Pigs.” This time, have the them argue about house construction. Write their dialogue. Show their different personalities in the way they fight. If you can, without ever saying outright which pig builds which house, make the reader know.

• Describe five people you know, a paragraph or so for each. Then pick one of the Biblical plagues on Egypt, like frogs or boils. Write another paragraph about how they’d respond. If you like, use what you come up with in a story.

• Try a Freaky Friday idea. There’s a big power differential between your two MCs, like school principal versus a new student, or starship commander versus a cadet, or duchess versus a stable hand. Or any other asymmetric relationship you pick. Have them change places for a day, a week–whatever you like. Write a story about how they respond to their new situation.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!

Different peas in a pod

Great news! My forthcoming writing book, Writer to Writer, has a subtitle, and it comes from you wonderful blog writers, who galloped in with your excellent ideas when I appealed for help. The powers that be at HarperCollins loved (and I love it too) one of Eliza’s suggestions. The subtitle will be–imagine a drum roll–From Think to Ink. Thank you, everyone, and special thanks to Eliza!

Eliza, if you’d like the acknowledgment in the book to include your last name, please write to the guestbook on my website with that information. Your email address would also be helpful. I won’t display anything you send. Unlike the blog, I see comments on the website and approve them before they’re posted.

On December 4, 2013, Bug wrote, I am worried that all my characters are too similar, and I have tried adding quirks, but I still feel like they are still really really close to each other. Does anyone have any way to help? Maybe my quirks aren’t quirky enough…

An assessment of the traits we usually give our characters may help. We can make a list. For example, suppose our characters’ virtues tend to be friendliness, an easy-going nature, and a sense of humor. We put these on our list. Their flaws seem always to include difficulty trusting, sarcasm, and laziness. We list these too. As soon as we look at our list we see possibilities for variation.

We can make add other personality traits, like this: shyness, too much energy, seriousness, a trusting nature, quick anger, hesitancy, impulsiveness, nervousness, sweetness, optimism, pessimism. That’s eleven. Go for eleven more. Return to this list and add to it when you think of additions, and keep the list handy as you develop your characters.

Of course it’s not enough to have a list. We have to show the traits in action, dialogue, thoughts, and feelings. Suppose our MC Jenna is waiting at a bus stop along with three strangers. It’s winter; snow is falling lightly; the bus is late. One stranger is so wrapped up against the weather that Jenna can see only his or her amber-colored eyes. Let’s call him or her WU, for wrapped up. The other stranger, whose name will turn out to be Ivan, is approximately Jenna’s age (fifteen), and, like Jenna, he’s wearing just a light jacket over a hoodie sweatshirt, no gloves, and sneakers rather than boots. Ignoring the swathed person, he starts a conversation with her. What does he say?

We cast an eye over our list of characteristics. Since Ivan started the conversation, let’s imagine that he’s not shy. And let’s pick impulsive and too trusting from our list. What might such a person say to Jenna? We write three possible lines for him. If all of them look like the sort of dialogue we always write, we write three more. When we get something that feels unfamiliar, we give it to him. Once he speaks, we know him a little.

Now we have to decide what Jenna does or says. Again we go to our list, then write down possible responses. Since she’s our POV character, we can tell the reader what she’s thinking and feeling, too, so our possible response list may be longer.

It will help if we have an idea of the kind of story we’re writing, so we can stop now to decide. If this is going to be a romance, we’ll go in one direction, probably, and WU may even turn out to be one of Ivan’s parents. If we’re writing an adventure story, we may have the dialogue go another way, and the missing bus and WU may take on more significance. If we’re writing horror, we may start to suspect Ivan as well as WU. Science fiction or fantasy may lead us in another direction.

The roles our characters are going to play in our story will help us make each unique. Let’s take one of my favorite novels when I was little, the classic Bambi by Felix Salten as an example. We’ll probably be writing a more complex story than this one, but its simplicity helps to show what I mean, because the characters aren’t much more than their roles. If you read the book when you were much younger, or never read it at all, you can go to Wikipedia for a plot summary, as I just did to refresh my memory. If you go to Wikipedia, make sure the page you’re on is for the book and not the movie.

Let’s look at just a few of the characters:

Bambi is our MC, brave, intelligent, inexperienced but promising at the beginning, thoughtful.

His mother is motherly, solicitous, expert in the ways of raising a fawn.

Faline, the love interest, is alluring and charming.

The old Prince is solemn, wise.

Gobo is weak and gullible.

The tale spans the life of a deer in a forest where hunters hunt. Man is the main villain, but carnivores in general don’t come off very well. Gobo, for example, is the way he is so that a point can be made about the danger of trusting humans. There are other turns in the story, but his undoing affects everything that follows. When Salten wrote Gobo, he must have known the role he would play in his plot.

Of course, we want major characters with more depth than a couple of salient characteristics. If our character is weak and gullible, we need to ask ourselves, Weak how? Physically? Is he ill or out of shape or exhausted? Emotionally weak? Is he unable to resist the slightest temptation? Gullible how? What else can we give him? Maybe he’s physically weak and also embarrassed to ask for help. As a result he often gets along without. Maybe he’s gullible because he always believes the best of people.

So we differentiate our characters by first thinking about their parts in our story and then by dreaming up ways to complicate their personalities without derailing our plot.

We can also see if we can eliminate characters we don’t need. For instance, if I had been around when “Cinderella” was first concocted, I would have argued against two stepsisters. We don’t need two! In the fairy tale they’re indistinguishable. And why seven dwarfs? They clump together into a formless mass of short characters. At least Disney had the good sense to name each one after a distinguishing characteristic. I couldn’t remember all the names, so I looked them up in Wikipedia, where the dwarfs’ monikers in various “Snow White” productions are listed. Here’s the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_names_of_the_Seven_Dwarfs. The strange names they’re given from production to production are funny.

In our story, if we have a group of friends who all seem to be running together, we can practice character economy and drop a few.

But we may need them all. My novel The Wish is about popularity, and I had to have a bunch of teenagers. It was hard work to make each one stand out! In a mystery we need enough suspects to confuse the poor reader, and we must differentiate between them so the reader can follow the plot.

Here are four prompts:

• Write the romantic version of the Jenna and Ivan story.

• Write a version of the story in which WU is the villain. Ivan knows him or her and is terrified.

• Have the bus come. Inside are five passengers and the driver. Jenna, Ivan, and WU get on. Turns out WU has been waiting for this particular driver to come along. You make up the reason. Write the bus ride and make the driver, each of the passengers, WU, Jenna, and Ivan distinct. Give each a role to play in the plot.

• Rewrite “Cinderella,” changing the plot so that the second stepsister has a real part to play for good or for ill. You can bring the story to its usual conclusion or change it entirely.

Have fun, and save what you write!