Developed characters, fictional or real, should be distinct from others in the story. If they all blur together, it's hard to make them come alive for the reader. Developed characters have backstory, a history that informs their story decisions. They have certain quirks, a way of moving, a way of standing or using their hands.
In early drafts, characters can read eerily similar to us. We give them our values, our music, our favorite foods or clothing. Or we make them our ideals, what we'd be if we weren't so flawed.
That's totally normal. We look in the mirror as we begin to write. It's how we get started.
Gradually, we begin to see our characters apart from ourselves. We're curious about who they might be if they aren't like us. That's when the characters begin to come alive on the page. In my online class coming in January, we'll use questionnaires, writing exercises, discussion, and modeling to explore how different they can be, how we can push them further away from what we know and into who they are, uniquely as themselves.
That's when the fun begins!
Once you've begun to see them move, live, and breathe apart from what you can imagine, there's a next stage--and this is what my student was asking about. How do you make your characters different from each other, not just different from you?
This week's writing exercise offers four steps to find out:
1. Choose a published book you love. Make sure it has at least three characters. Find a scene where at least two of these characters are present, early in the book, preferably, when we are first meeting them.
2. Make notes on how the writer describes what each character looks like, how they walk across a room, what they do with their hands, what their voice sounds like. What has this writer chosen to offer you, the reader, so the character comes across fast and effectively? Skilled writers can capture a character's uniqueness in one or two lines.
3. Now go back to your own book. Make a chart with three columns. Write one character's name at the top of each column, so you have a separate column for each of them. On the left side of the chart write these categories: Hair, Skin, Clothing, Gestures, Movement, Objects, Voice.
4. Fill in the answers for each character for each category. For instance, your character Joe might have black hair, olive skin, wear jean jackets and boots, talk with his hands, walk slow, carry a penknife, and have a raspy cigarette-smoker's voice. Compare what you get for each of the characters. Ask yourself: are they different enough? How can you make them more so?