As we look at a successful year ahead, we must overcome the problems that have held our writing back. One of the frequent problems new authors encounter is a tendency for characters to sound alike. Sometimes we even see this in published books. Have you ever read a book where you had serious trouble keeping the characters straight in your head? That pretty much never happens with unique characters. Now, naturally, all characters will have things in common. They may be living in the same town or going to the same school. They may even be members of the same family. But that doesn’t mean they cannot also be unique. Let’s look at some areas where you can help your characters become truly individual.
The first thing I always suggest is to get to know your characters really well. The more you know about them, the more they’ll develop specific personalities that will feel real to you and that tends to translate into being more unique on the page. But there are also specific things you can do to guarantee that your characters don’t run together. Let’s look at three areas.
Make Them Sound Unique
If all your characters come from the same area, you’re not going to have the option of playing with regionalisms as a way to make your characters sound unique. But if you’re in a situation where you can make one of the characters a recent move from far away, you’ll have regional voice options and you’ll get to play a bit with culture shock. For example, if you move a Midwestern farm boy into a city, you’ll have a fish out of water, which will cover things he chooses to say and assumptions he’s going to make. Maybe he thinks cities are more dangerous and is stunned by the casual way his new friends move about the city. And his voice will contrast with theirs as many big city accents are more clipped, sentences more rushed, while Midwest and Southern speech patterns tend to be slower with more words per sentence. The one thing you don’t want to do is add a bunch of phonetic spellings to suggest accent. Some educators actually find that offensive (suggesting there is something not normal about the speech patterns of specific parts of the country) and others worry that it makes learning to spell a bit more difficult when children are encountering variant spellings based on attempts to reproduce exact accent sounds.
If you can’t introduce different regional voices to your characters, then consider something strictly mechanical like a favorite phrase or speech pacing that reflects the characters personality. For example, your excitable character might speak often without always thinking through what he’s going to say. Or you might have a character who likes to use big words, but doesn’t necessarily know big words so he makes them up. Or you might have a character who loves dinosaurs so all his metaphors and similes are based on dinosaurs. By giving your characters different voices, you’ll make it much harder for the reader to confuse them.
Make Them Need Something Unique
Another way to help separate your characters in your reader’s mind is to give them unique goals and needs. For example, if you have three boys who’ve snuck into an old, abandoned theater to go ghost hunting, their shared experience may make it easy for them to blend together. They’re likely to be the same age, and they’re in the same place and doing the same thing. So how can you make them stand out? Well, it may help to give them different motivations and needs in the situation. For example, one of the boys could very much not want to be there (maybe he’s afraid or maybe he isn’t normally in the habit of breaking rules) but he is desperate to make friends and the other two are the first kids to offer him something like friendship, so he’s sticking to the situation with the hope of friendship at the end. Another kid might have a strong desire to be seen as brave to overcome the fact that he’s small for his age or perhaps sickly (suppose his asthma sometimes gets in the way of him doing things at school, but now he’s going to prove that it doesn’t make him a wimp or other negative thing he worries about. But a problem like that will add a layer of complexity to the plot too as we have a kid with breathing problems in an old building with bad air). By giving kids different needs, you’ll automatically give them different responses to one another and to the situations at hand, and that will help them avoid blending together.
Make Them Do Something Unique
Though action is tied to needs, you can also give your characters signature actions. One character might always wear a hat. He has to pull it off his head when he comes into school, leaving his hair eternally rumpled (and sometimes he forgets to remove his hat and perhaps a teacher tugs it from his head as he passes in the hall). He might pull it over his face when he is trying to not be noticed. He might turn it backwards if using a telescope. The simple, logistical things associated with always wearing a hat will help make that character different. And it doesn’t have to be a hat. There are lots of clothing tics you could give a character. A character who has recently moved from the south to fall in New England might always wear a sweatshirt when the other kids are still in t-shirts. A character might wear heavy boots all the time or be prone to using the hem of his t-shirt as a dust cloth as he constantly tries to clean the world. It’s important not to let small characterization tics take over the story or become intrusive, but in small doses, they can help make a character specific and clear to a reader.
Real kids are all different, even when they’re in the same family. In my own family we had the kid who was always playing an angle, looking for some new mischief to get into, the kid who was one daydream away from falling in a hole and who never heard of an adventure that sounded like a bad idea, the kid who was always moving and loved nothing more than a playground, and the kid who never understood the appeal of a playground since reading while swinging could make you throw up. So putting those four kids in a story would not result in four children who all sounded alike (or sounded alike at all). By their very different natures, they’re going to be easy for readers to differentiate.
So let this be the year where you make very specific characters your goal so that “characters running together” is one problem you never need encounter again. And one problem down is one giant step closer to success.
(Don’t forget to download our Success Journal to help you with taking that step closer!)