When crafting a story, writers spend as much time agonizing over the characters who populate it as they do the events that happen. Without relatable, realistic, and distinguishable characters, readers will feel disconnected, no matter how interesting the setting or plot is.
Most stories revolve around a handful of main and side characters. Alternating POVs are also common. When you’re balancing all these different roles, your characters can easily start to think and act alike. How can you prevent them from becoming clones of each other or falling into outrageous cliches?
With three simple tricks, you can help your characters display their individuality.
Tip #1: Name Characters Carefully
Writers often overlook and abuse names, especially in the fantasy genre. Remember, you’re creating a person—albeit a fake person—and his name will influence readers’ understanding of who he is from the moment he walks onto the scene.
In the Bible, names are treated with importance. God gave people new names at turning points in their lives to symbolize the change they experienced: Jacob became Israel, and Abram became Abraham. And when we browse social media in our modern day, we laugh at memes about Karens, Chads, and Lindas because we know the kinds of people those names represent.
Lucy Pevensie is a protagonist in C. S. Lewis’s beloved Chronicles of Narnia. Throughout the books, she’s usually the first one to see Aslan and excitedly tells her siblings and friends (who don’t always believe her). Her name means “bringer of light,” which underscores her childlike faith.
A name is a small but significant detail, so choose it intentionally. Look up the meaning to find out if it fits the character’s personality, and ask friends what comes to mind when they hear it. Just make sure all the names in your story vary enough that readers won’t get confused. Avoid names that start with the same letters or have similar pronunciations, for instance. Once a name feels “right,” your character will unfold.
Tip #2: Use Stereotypes to Your Advantage
Stereotypes are double-edged swords. Though you should reject pernicious stereotypes (racial and religious, to list a couple), others can assist you in establishing a character’s attributes. Stereotypes such as the arrogant older sibling, the manipulative lawyer, or the socially embarrassing parent function as representatives of many (not all) people within a set category. Instead of discarding all stereotypes as flawed, plunder them to jumpstart character development.
The human brain is built to process reams of information, and one way it does this is to ignore most of the intake. You won’t immediately perceive how one hero is minutely distinct from another because it requires too much effort. Your brain sorts data into patterns it can grasp without straining. That’s why you see an orderly object when you gaze at a puffy cloud. The cloud isn’t shaping itself into a teapot, your brain is. If you draw on generalizations that are familiar to readers, they’ll bond with your characters much sooner.
In the recent film adaption of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the protagonist’s love interest, Peter Kavinsky, relies on the stereotype of a popular high school jock to quickly convey his personality and engage the audience. Yet, as Peter’s relationship with Laura Jean progresses, he diverges from the stereotype and shows how he’s unique.
Whether readers are aware of it or not, they form assumptions based on the details you share about a character. An only child is spoiled. A nerd is introverted. A grandmother dotes on her grandchildren. Capitalize on these expectations. Decide if they add or detract from your story and adjust accordingly. When you introduce a character through a stereotype, you’re laying a foundation for constructing her further and even surprising your audience. She’ll stand out as a result.
Tip #3: Add Flavor to Characters’ Voices
Dialogue is the most powerful weapon in your arsenal. It’s also the hardest to master. Since you as the writer have your own verbal tics, you must actively strive to separate your narrative voice from your characters’ so that their dialogue doesn’t sound like ventriloquism.
A character’s vocabulary, sentence structure, and favorite phrases immediately distinguish him from other speakers. In Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel Gathering Blue, the protagonist, Kira, refers to children as “tykes” and wild animals as “beasts.” Readers understand what she means, yet the deliberate word choice reveals that her world is different from ours and gives her a recognizable voice. Like Lowry, you can develop a character’s voice by sprinkling his dialogue with a few words/phrases that are exclusive to him.
You have multiple outlets for research as you’re crafting character voices. Pay closer attention to how people around you talk. What words or phrases do you notice? You can also watch YouTube videos of people from different regions to hear their intonations and vocabulary.
The Magic Is in the Details
Characters are the backbone of your stories, and making each one unique doesn’t have to be impossible. Rather than passing over little details like names and speech mannerisms, devote more time to those areas. If you do, you’ll reap the reward of realistic and compelling individuals who keep readers invested.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.