Help – my characters are all too similar! 5 tips to make them distinct

villa saraceno 201I’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 identikit – 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 are 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, or curse. 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.

nyn2 2014 smlebookcovernyn3There are tips on creating characters in Writing Characters To Keep Readers Captivated and on using characters’ personalities to create your plot in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart.

You also might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss whether fictional characters have to be likable. Click this thingy for more (plus an audacious cover of a Prince track… no, not by us)

And meanwhile, let’s discuss – have you had feedback that your characters aren’t distinct enough? What did you do about it? Do you have any favourite examples of writers who do this particularly well?

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  1. #1 by drshaywest on May 10, 2015 - 12:46 pm

    This is coming at the perfect time! Working on re-writes of a scifi/fantasy novel that has quite a few characters from various planets. Going to put extra effort into fleshing out the individual characters 😀

  2. #3 by michellejoycebond on May 10, 2015 - 1:05 pm

    Love this–especially the idea of separate revision days for specific characters! Adding that to my revision list. 🙂

  3. #5 by Henry Boleszny on May 10, 2015 - 1:45 pm

    Once again, you’ve stopped me giving up on my fantasy novel (and my fantasy of being a successful author, lol). It’s the little ideas in your blogs that make the difference. I’ve got eight characters that cannot–for any reason–be separated or they die. Figuring out the conflicts when there’s a twist that makes them devoted to each other was killing me. Your suggestion of one little thing that each might demonstrate could save the story… and add some dark humour as well!

    Thanks for this article, Roz!

  4. #7 by Melanie Marttila on May 10, 2015 - 4:45 pm

    Great article 🙂 Also, thank you for including the Surrey Hills radio podcast link. So convenient! You’re all about the good stuff, Roz. Thanks for sharing your expertise so generously.

  5. #9 by mrdisvan on May 10, 2015 - 8:17 pm

    This is excellent advice, though I would like to sound one note of caution. When the film Alien came out in 1979, writer Dan O’Bannon presented us with a sweatily dysfunctional spaceship crew that was a sea change (well, space change) from the likes of Star Trek. It made for great drama and it made perfect sense, given that the Nostromo’s crew were just company employees doing a boring job aboard an unexceptional commercial vessel.

    The trouble is, it worked so well that we were then subjected to almost four decades of bickering teams in sci-fi films, arguing and messing up even when they were meant to be crack space marines or highly qualified and carefully selected astronauts and scientists. I’ll cite Event Horizon, Aliens, and Prometheus, but there are many others. So writers should find the tensions and character conflicts by all means, but keep it credible within the framework of who those characters are supposed to be.

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 10, 2015 - 8:21 pm

      Your note of caution is a good one, Disvan. The level of conflict has to be finely judged so as not to upset the story’s credibility. It’s almost a cliche now that teams of cops will bicker, so we have to set up these tensions in a way that seems plausible.

      • #11 by mrdisvan on May 10, 2015 - 8:23 pm

        I long for the days when the crew of the Enterprise didn’t have punch-ups over the bridge consoles and lovers’ tiffs when prepping for away team missions. Sigh.

  6. #12 by Gargi Mehra on May 11, 2015 - 12:27 pm

    Thank you for this great and timely post! I am writing a novel(la) in which a bunch of programmers/scientists get together to create a device and by some quirk of fate I think I’ve managed to make them somewhat distinct! It helps to have the characters of different ages, genders and sexual orientation as well.

    • #13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 11, 2015 - 1:45 pm

      Hi Gargi – your scenario sounds exactly the kind where we have to be careful of similar characters. Have fun with them.

  7. #14 by Jonathan Moore on May 11, 2015 - 12:44 pm

    Hi Roz! I was reading Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” recently, and he advises that all your main characters need “an eyepatch and a limp” i.e. some superficial differences to help your reader/audience out. I like your idea about revising different characters on different days. I once saw Graham Fellows demonstrate how he records The Shuttleworths for Radio 4, first voicing one character, stop and rewind, change character press play and respond.

    I think the most vital point is your first one (or two), to make them have fundemental differences of opinion and to make those relevant to the plot. Will apply this to current WIP of postgrads sharing a house together. They’re all pretty similar at the moment.

    Cheers for now,

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 11, 2015 - 1:47 pm

      Hi Jon – is that a new picture? I must have read Save the Cat many years ago, and known that advice about the limp and eyepatch, then forgotten it!
      Your postgrads novel sounds interesting, and you might find the William Boyd novel helps you think in terms of differences. Full steam ahead!

  8. #16 by Dennis Langley on May 11, 2015 - 12:53 pm

    It seems like everyone has this issue at some point. Excellent advice.

  9. #18 by The Story Reading Ape on May 14, 2015 - 4:29 pm

  10. #19 by Jordan Dumer on May 14, 2015 - 4:51 pm

    Fantastic article! Thanks for sharing!

  11. #21 by Jack Ronald Cotner on May 14, 2015 - 5:45 pm

    Excellent tips and advice. Thanks for posting this. Enjoyed it.

  12. #23 by D. Wallace Peach on May 15, 2015 - 2:43 pm

    Tip #1 I learned recently and has been extremely helpful. If I lay all my characters out on a board, I make sure each of them is highly compatible in some way with at least one other character and highly incompatible with another character. So two good guys may irk each other on some level. And a good guy may actually have something in common with the villain.

    Tip #5 is a great idea! Especially before getting too far into the first draft (otherwise lots and lots or rewriting). I can definitely see the benefit of a dedicated revision day to intensify a character and relationships. LOVE THIS. Thanks.

    • #24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 17, 2015 - 6:07 pm

      D Wallace – I LOVE your variation on Tip 1. Looking for compatibilities and incompatibilities is the very engine of story. Thanks so much for this comment.

  13. #25 by azaleea entropică on June 1, 2015 - 8:59 pm

    Reblogged this on nu vrei sa citești asta.

  14. #26 by shawn on June 2, 2015 - 6:47 pm

    Thanks for a great article and all the great comments too! As a beginning writer, this is really useful information.

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