Making Characters Unique
By Andrew Biss

How do you prevent different characters from sounding like the same person?

Perhaps you're writing a 400 page historical novel with a cast of thousands, or perhaps simply a short story, but in either case every character has to have their own distinct personality. In film and television, on top of the visual frame of reference you're given, you also have actors and directors bringing each member of the cast to life, imbuing them with whatever it is they're bringing to the table. In a book, there is no visual reference and all of the actors as well as the director are you. So how do you ensure that all of your characters stand out, distinct and apart from each other?

I think the real key to finding their voices is stepping out in front of that camera and becoming each of them for a while. In your mind, at least.

I think it’s always a mistake begin a work before you have a good understanding of the characters involved. A good story and a clever plot will only take you so far. If you populate it with stick figures the reader will be left with nothing to invest their emotions in.

Think carefully about each character before you start. Consider their role in the story and let that conjure certain traits of behavior. What are their objectives and what means are they willing to use in order to achieve them? You can also embellish that character with certain quirks or idiosyncrasies that will help define them, perhaps even incongruous characteristics that run counter to what one would expect to find in such a person. After all, we’re all full of contradictions ourselves.

You can also graft characteristics and qualities onto your characters from people you’ve met in your own life. You don’t have to base the character on that person, but you can take elements of their behavior and use them where appropriate.

But again, the most important rule, I believe, is to have a full understanding of what the character's purpose is in your story. They all have one or they wouldn’t be in it. Spend some time on each one and let your imagination develop them in your head before you commit them to paper/computer. They’ll grow and change, of course, as the story develops, but you’ll have given yourself the tools with which to get a good head start at finding out what really lies at the heart of your book.

In my short story collection, The Impressionists, there are six very different characters, each telling their own story in the first person. You get to see the face that they share with the world, along with the private one that is conflicted and troubled. With each of these characters I spent a long time living with them before I ever started writing them. I also researched each one. I looked for information about their specific character type, read blogs of people who were dealing with similar issues, and spent a long time wondering what life would feel like if I were in their shoes. By the time I started writing each story I had a great building block from which to create what were, by then, almost real people to me.

In my novella The End of the World it was a different situation. My main protagonist is essentially a blank slate. He's a young man who's been home schooled and swaddled by his parents, with barely any experience of life. However, when he finds himself, after a regrettable incident, in the afterlife, he becomes a foil to all of the strange and outlandish characters he meets there. In his case I had to look to myself and recall how it felt to be completely innocent and naive (I was once, believe me - very), and how I might have reacted to what he experiences.

In both of these examples, though, I never simply used stock characters as chess pieces to move my story along. I was invested in each person I was writing for. Whether it was through research and observation or personal experience, I wanted to make them real.

If you're characters are real to you, they'll be real to your readers, no matter how far you push that envelope.

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