Help! My Characters Are All Too Similar! 5 Tips to Make Them Distinct

Identical

 

by Roz Morris

I’ve been asked this question twice recently–in a conversation on G+ and by a student at my Guardian masterclass the other week. In both cases, the writers had encouraging feedback from agents, but one crucial criticism: the characters all seemed too similar. And probably this wasn’t surprising because of their story scenarios.

Both writers had a set of characters who belonged to a group. A bunch of flatmates, or a squad of marines, or a group of musical coal miners forming a choir. To outsiders, they probably looked identical–they’d talk the same, use the same cultural references and have similar aims.

So how can you flesh them out as individuals?

 

1. Look for incompatibility

The first step is to assemble your cast carefully. In real life, if you were choosing a team, you’d go for compatibility and congruent aims. For a story, you need to plant some fundamental mismatches that may threaten the group’s harmony.

So, they might seem similar on the surface, but deep down it’s another matter.

Choose as your principals the people who will be most challenged by each other’s personalities and attitudes. They might be in one choir, but they don’t have to sing from the same hymn sheet.

 

2. Include this in the story

Make sure these differences are exposed by the plot events.

A couple, who might be well matched in other ways, might disagree fundamentally about whether to send their children to boarding school, or whether to take out a loan. Make that a story issue and explore the fall-out. You could give one of your characters a secret that will clash with the group’s overall interests–a drug habit, perhaps, or a forbidden lover.

Or if your characters have embarked on a bigger task, such as solving a crime, make the attitude differences into unsettling background music. William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach is worth looking at for its distinct bunch of scientists who are living together in a jungle research station (fresh in my mind because I just wrote a Goodreads review).

 

3. Humour, stress and swearing

Aside from the plot conflicts, your characters will express themselves individually in other ways. Think of their temperaments and how they handle stress. One of them may go to a boxing gym. Another might stitch a quilt, which may seem intolerably mimsy to the pugilist. They’ll have different ways to express humour, of course. There’s more here about polishing dialogue so that characters sound individual.

 

4. Keep track of their different outlooks

With my own WIP, Ever Rest, I’ve got four principal players. It’s tricky to hop between so many consciousnesses, so I’ve made aides-memoirs. I have a list of how they differ on important issues such as romantic relationships, ambition etc. Just writing this list produced some interesting insights and clarifications. As always, so much can unlock if you ask the right question.

Actors sometimes talk about how they don’t know a character until they’ve chosen their footwear. In a similar way, you could walk in your characters’ shoes by choosing a simple characteristic. Perhaps one of them wears glasses. One of them walks with a slight limp. One of them always worries about losing things. A small detail like this might help you remember how their experience is distinct.

Another fun tool is to collect pictures of strangers. You know how we’re told not to judge by appearances? Tosh. We can’t help it. And this instinctive trait becomes very useful when we create people out of thin air. Look through photos of strangers and you probably make instant–and of course erroneous–assumptions of what you’d like and dislike about them. It’s okay, no one will know. You don’t have to tell your mother. Here’s a post I wrote about this in detail.

 

5. Have dedicated revision days for particular characters

You don’t have to get everything right in one go. And we don’t have to revise a book in one go, or in chapter order, either. We might need a particular mindset to write one of our characters, so it might help to work on all their scenes in one batch.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Roz Morris. Roz is an experienced speaker, tutor, and writing coach. She teaches creative writing masterclasses for The Guardian newspaper in London and has spoken at a range of writing and publishing events. Check out her website for more of her writing.

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31 thoughts on “Help! My Characters Are All Too Similar! 5 Tips to Make Them Distinct”

  1. I always have that worry. Some of these I have inadvertently done simply because it seemed good story telling (incompatibility, dialogues and humor). The excellent idea that I will be taking away will be a “dedicated revision day” for a character. I can see focusing on one character will help build continuity and consistency through the story.

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  2. Your fourth tip is something similar to what I do. I have one-page character sketches for each of my main characters in which I’ve put a lot of detail into how they react to different general situations. These sheets are only a tab away from the page I’m currently writing (typing actually). I should work on making sure that there are incompatible traits though.

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  3. Reblogged this on Andrea Lundgren and commented:
    Identical or nearly identical characters. It is one of my “pet peeves” when I’m reading. Even if the dialogue is different–even if they wear different clothes or have widely different physiques–they end up describing a scene in the same way, with the same words, the same attention to certain details. I don’t mind it if there is an overall shared sense of humor (an author will likely have personal preferences and write accordingly) but there are still some things one character would say, while another wouldn’t, and if we can’t tell at a glance…an author has a problem.

    But here’s a good post on how to fix this. 🙂

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