We’ve all had issues at one point in our writing where it seems that all of the characters are the same; they talk the same, have the same ticks and habits, and it’s impossible to tell who is who other than name and physical description. Some people have no problem setting their characters in stark contrast from the beginning, but in the rush of getting the words down, not all of us are so lucky.
Here are some quick, basic tips to make sure your characters stand apart from each other so that, just by a quote or phrase without a name, your readers will be able to tell exactly who is speaking.
- 1. Dialect
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of a character is how they speak. If all of your characters look different but use the same words and phrases all the time, no one will be able to tell the difference, and they’ll run together. Especially in a work with a lot of characters (such as a fantasy novel), the names might get mixed up in the reader’s head so they need to be able to remember from context clues who everyone is.
The way the characters talk can clue the reader in to many things; how they think, what their home life is like, where they were raised, etc, and it adds depth to the character.
In my serial novel, Trust Me, Jackson is a poor boy in a bad way with his brother. He’s not stupid as shown by his normal conversations, but when he gets angry or defensive, he slips into bad grammar and a slight accent, very akin to his older brother.
This shows what kind of place and family Jack comes from, and it’s obvious how heavily he’s influenced by his brother, simply by writing his speech a different way.
Be careful with this, though. There can be too much emphasis on dialect that it’s hard to understand the character. In At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter, all of the characters have thick Scottish accents. While it does emphasize the setting, sometimes it gets too hard to read, and a piece of dialogue has to be read twice or more to understand what they’re saying.
Basically, dialect is a great power; use it responsibly.
- 2. Motivation
Every character should have something that motivates them throughout the story. Whether it is another person, a deep-set belief, a set of moral codes, or something else, the character has to have something that pushes them to make the decisions they make in the text, and for every character, that motivation should be different.
If every character is motivated by a dead relative, the text becomes monotonous and predictable. It also becomes more of a gimmick than an actual problem, and the original emotion evoked by the scene fades as the trick grows tired.
- 3. Fears
One of the best telling signs of a character is what they fear most.
There are some common fears such as death or heights that people might share, but then there may be a character that seems to fear nothing, but actually is terrified of being forgotten. Some may fear being alone, or claustrophobic such as the protagonist in my working novel.
Fear is very telling. Some may overlap, but find the ones that make your characters different, whether it be a fear they have that no one else does, or vice versa.
- 4. Habits
Most people have some kind of habit, though it may not necessarily be physical. Some people have a habit of ignoring advice even after they’ve asked for it. Other people tend to get angry at very small things.
Then there are the obvious, more physical habits. Using the same example as before with Jack in Trust Me, that character tugs on a lock of his hair when he gets nervous. It’s a small tick that he doesn’t notice but other people do which differentiates him from the other boys in the series, and also reminds the reader of his physical appearance (which consists of unruly, long hair) to further define him.
A habit can be any small trait, physical or nonphysical, that the character does over and over again without noticing it. They might catch themselves doing it, especially if it’s a physical trait, but most of the time they’ll be oblivious to it. Of course, you can treat your character’s habits how you wish.
- 5. Action and Reaction
Obviously, the actions the characters take are important to who they are, but so are their reactions. The same things don’t offend the same people. A phrase or comment that may offend one character might be funny to another. That also affects how these characters view the person who said the phrase or comment, and thus develops their relationships.
The same thing goes to actions and reactions made in response to an event. If a loved one dies, some characters are the type to curl into themselves and push others away. Another might seek the comfort of others. Another might seek the distractions of things such as sex, drugs, or alcohol.
Discover how your characters react to certain things. If they are all offended by the same thing, or if they all get angry in the same way, then they made need to be tweaked.
Have any more tips you’d like to add? Feel free to add them in the comments.
-M. H. Knecht