When you think about it, it is incredible how, with billions of humans on the planet, no two people are exactly the same. Not even identical twins. We all think differently. We hold to different values. Even people within the same religions or belief system don’t share exactly the same philosophies. When it comes to writing, however, the tables turn. It is sometimes difficult to keep characters from becoming the same person.
I am currently writing my third novel, and I can say with absolute certainty that this protagonist is very different from the MC of WHAT LIES ABOVE, and incredibly different from CONCEALED’s main character. How do I do it? Read on to discover my hacks for creating diverse characters with lots of variation and personality. (Note: This post has nothing to do with the now-famous term “diverse”. By diverse, I mean different from each other.)
In order to determine how to create various characters, we first must know what makes them different.
WHERE THEY HAVE COME FROM
A character’s past will greatly affect their present. Their history will define their future. In this, I mean that their upbringing and lifestyle will shape how they see things, and how they react to them. A girl raised as an orphan on the streets will have a very different outlook on her world than an heiress with two parents who give her everything.
I will use these two – the orphan and the heiress – as my sample protagonists. For those of you who are working on your first novel, these tips can still be applied within one story, in how your MC might differ from his/her best friend, or even his/her family members.
Let’s go back to the orphan for a moment. Is he/she bitter about the cruelty of their world? Has this made them hard and callous? Is it easy for them to be selfish and ruthless? Will this be critical to the plot throughout the book?
What about the heiress? Is she spoiled and used to getting her way? Or perhaps she is secretly unhappy with her wealth, and yearns for real relationships instead of ones built on riches and bribes. Perhaps her mother is harder on her because she is the heir, but pampers her siblings. There are a thousand different circumstances to put your characters in, and each one shapes them differently.
What if, though, your characters are not polar opposites? What if the main character of your first novel is an orphan, and a secondary character from your third novel is as well? Sometimes this happens. Sometimes characters share common traits. How do you distinguish their personalities then?
HOW THEY REACT TO THEIR WORLD
Stemming from #1, determine how your characters react to the things that happen to them. Events aren’t directly correlated to character – events have to do with plot. How they react has to do with personality, and therefore character. If the same event happened to two different characters, there should be two different reactions. Two different outcomes. Let’s revisit the two orphans and give them a very common scenario – war. Orphan #1’s father was a soldier, and that was ultimately how he died. When war strikes again, Orphan #1 wants to avenge his father’s blood, and therefore joins the army. What about Orphan #2? His father was forced by the government to fight, and was killed during battle. Because of this, Orphan #2 despises his country and betrays them, becoming a spy for the other side. One young man is loyal. One is traitorous. The first will probably be less volatile than the second. Even if you chose to have both be hot-blooded and vengeful, they would take out their vengeance on different people and in different ways.
Recap: So far, we have discovered that character traits will be based on personality and shaped by history. What else defines a character?
HOW THEY SPEAK
There are two separate characteristics to speech – (1) what someone says, and (2) how they say it. #1 includes the words they actually use. Does someone say street? Road? Avenue? What about hallway vs. corridor? Cart vs. wagon? Horse or mare or stallion or steed? There are lots of different names for the same concept or thing. It’s up to you to determine which your character will use. Another aspect of this point is, to coin a common term, “catch-phrases”. If you stop and listen in ordinary life, people favor and repeat certain phrases or words. These catch-phrases give their speech an iconic spin. You can recognize who says what. I once read a blog post about dialogue, and the author said that a reader/writer should be able to recognize a character by their words. Pick out any sentence from your story or make any one up. Which character would say this?
The second part to speech is how someone says the words they choose to say. Do they have an accent? A lisp? A stutter? Are they a man of few words? A woman who is very chatty? Do they drone on and on about something or get straight to the point? Dialogue is so important to personality, as much of a character’s personality is shown through conversation. Varying your character’s speech patterns can help you create good differences.
Recap: Character traits will be based on personality, shaped by history, and reflected in speech.
WHAT THEY WANT
What drives a particular character? What do they want, and what are they willing to give to get or accomplish it? The answers to these questions will greatly affect how a character acts. Just like in the world around us, when someone is after something, it will warp everything else in their life. If someone values money over everything else, they will sacrifice other things to get it. If someone is seeking revenge, they will pursue it until it is carried out. In the same way, our characters will all have different goals, and their independent journeys will reflect that. All your characters should not be travelling on the same path, or in the same direction. Even two characters who appear to want the same thing will not want it for the same reason. Determine what your MC wants, and allow that desire to drive their actions and reactions. Do the same for every other character, and keep those individual goals in mind as you write. This is particularly difficult if you are writing a scene where something has to happen in order to keep the plot going. Ask yourself first if that action is within the character’s personality. Don’t compromise for the sake of the plot.
Recap: Character traits will be based on personality, shaped by history, reflected in speech, and driven by desires.
DON’T LET YOUR OWN PERSONALITY INTERFERE
Because these characters are actually all created in our heads (I know, it’s hard to believe sometimes), our own thinking influences every one of them. This gives us a defining voice, but it can also interfere in trying to create characters that are different from one another, because they all become extensions of ourselves. This is why many writers will advocate writing characters that you are not similar too, or which do not share your values. I personally will draw the line at advocating evil practices as being good, but I myself have quite a few characters who have personalities contrary to my own. I am very similar in personality to Eva from WHAT LIES ABOVE, but the main character of my current WIP is not really like me at all. Certain personality traits might reflect my own, but for the most part, she is very hot-blooded and vengeful (in the most endearing way, of course *grins*). She was hard to bring to life at first, but the more I got to understand her backstory and desires, the more I understood her.
In the end, what you are looking for is character depth. If you craft each of your characters to be realistic and multi-layered, they will stand apart from each other. As your story progresses, you will get to know them so well – their ins and outs, flaws and virtues – that they will decide their own reactions. When I first started out writing, I heard other writers/authors say this, and I never understood. The more you write, the more you truly realize what this means. Your characters become people, and you will know how they speak and react. Their personality will become so developed that you will just know whether they would say a certain phrase or respond a certain way – just like you would with someone in real life. Has your sibling or friend ever said something completely out of character, and you were immediately taken aback? Why did you react this way? Because you know what their personality is like, and you recognize anything out of the ordinary. The same principles apply with your characters, and over time, you as the author will be able to recognize what fits in their personalities, and what does not. This ability takes time, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come naturally when you first start out.
What are your thoughts on creating a cast of characters that is unique and diverse? Leave a comment below!