Making your characters their own people.By Eric Johnson
Developing characters is one of the most important things you can do—for any story. This is perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the pre-production phase; the process is easy for some writers and challenging for others. However, I have discovered that for almost any writer, there is a tendency to develop characters that are very similar to one another. This can have a very negative effect on the characters, the story, and even the writer.
If you’re like me, you may notice that your male characters tend to have brown hair and your female characters are usually blonde. Or perhaps you’ve realized that all of your protagonists are courageous and their sidekicks are more hesitant. Maybe all of your villains wear black. Then again, maybe not, but even so, according to my hypothesis, if I dug deep enough I could find a recurring theme through most of your characters. This isn’t always a bad thing, as the writer is always going to come through in the characters in some way. My point is this: too much of this and you’re going to end up with the same character twice.
Going back to the hair color example, you may wonder why it even matters what the hero’s hair looks like. Well, I’ll tell you why. I got through five completed novels (and novellas) and numerous uncompleted ones before I realized something: if I were to give a couple of my main characters personality tests, they’d probably end up with mostly all of the same answers as the other one. In the same way if I lined them up, they’d be (for practical purposes) indistinguishable (except, perhaps younger or older.) I realized then that I had to break the mold somehow. The first thing I did was start a brand new novel with a brand new main character. I gave her red hair as opposed to the typical blonde, and things took off from there.
This was significant not because the appearance of the character changed, but because this character was now officially an individual—her own person. She was no longer a character that could be confused with any of my others—even on a surface level. I decided to do this because I realized the importance of doing anything at all different from what I typically did.
After establishing her as someone different from the rest, I gave her an entirely unique personality that made her stand out from my other characters like a person wearing neon in a crowd of people wearing black. At this point I started work on writing a story with a character that I still look on as one of my favorites. Even with a bit of a sloppy, underdeveloped plot, I was able to write thousands of words purely because I was intrigued with who this character really was.
Maybe your example isn’t quite as extreme, and maybe you do ensure that your characters aren’t caught with the same hair, eyes, voice, etc. Even so, I would encourage you to try something drastically different from what has become the “norm” to you personally. Even small, somewhat insignificant changes can make a great effect on how you view your character as separated from the rest. If all of your characters like rock music, try writing one that listens to country. If they all prefer to be alone, write one that thrives in a social setting. One of these changes may have a great effect on their personality, or they may change little as far as the story is concerned. The point is changing it up and giving the character more and more of their own personality and less and less of yours. The larger the split, the better the character will be.
On the flip side, maybe you do need to make significant changes from one character to the next. Maybe your next main character should be a coward where your last was courageous. Or maybe they should be physically strong where the last was not. If you’re stuck in a rut, it might take drastic changes to get out. Writing different types of characters can be challenging and unfamiliar, but even a failed attempt at this will do more good than harm. Besides, if you’re stuck somewhere anyway, it might just be worth a shot.
This entire article can be summed up in a few words: write weird characters. Few notable stories have been written about totally average people. Write a character that you’d want to meet (or would be afraid to meet). Try something different and see where it takes you. You might end up with a few thousand words and a “learning experience” or you might just write your new favorite character. Either way, take the chance. You (probably) won’t regret it.