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How to keep your characters from feeling interchangeable? (1/2)

I’ve talked a little bit about how to expand your writing on a sentence level by expanding your vocabulary, etc. But now, I want to discuss characters and how to practice making them unique rather than interchangeable.

There are two ways of looking at this. First, all the characters in a particular story read and feel the same and it’s difficult to tell them apart, and second, all the characters across the author’s many stories feel the same, particularly their point-of-view characters.

This second one is interesting in the romance industry because it often means that a character who was once a side character in someone else’s story becomes the lead character in their own, only, they end up feeling like a completely different person because they read like the previous main character instead of who they’d been in that previous story. (As an example, because this reads a little confusing: Paul’s story is great. Paul is friends with side character, Lyle. Lyle is beloved by fans. Author writes book about Lyle next. Only Lyle suddenly acts like Paul rather than the Lyle everyone loved.)

So I’m going to address ways in which to help out with both these situations in two different posts since they are actually different things entirely.

First, how to keep characters in the same book from all reading the same.

1) Give each character a unique physical/visible trait.

This has to do with imagery. You want a different image in each reader’s mind when you bring up a specific character in your story. A lot of people need something physical to latch on to, something that helps paint a picture in their imagination. So giving each person a particular physical trait can make all the difference.

When I say unique, I mean unique. If all the characters have brown hair, then brown hair isn’t unique. If all the characters have scars across their faces, then the scars aren’t unique. You see this often in stories where you’ll have the blond-haired one, the brown-haired one and the red-haired one as a set of three. That’s one way to do it…

However, I’d urge you to push past that. There are many different ways of describing and people are all incredibly different. Someone might have a cute snaggle tooth; someone else might have a childhood injury to their thumb; someone else might always wear dresses with flowers; someone else might like wearing the same old T-shirt day in and day out.

Note: please try not to make race or skin-tone your differences.

Note number two: the physical/visible trait can also be a jumping off point as to deepening character, for why do they wear flower dresses all the time or how did their snaggle tooth affect them in their youth, etc.

2) Give each character a unique invisible trait.

I often refer to these two traits as my visible/invisible traits. Something to see, something to know.

For your invisible trait, you are tapping into a reaction: how would this person react in different circumstances? Think about anyone you know pretty well and then imagine them in different situations. You already know how they would react, at least to a certain degree, right? Your characters should be like that as well. You can get to that point by giving them one belief, one internal issue or trait that affects everything they do.

Maybe they’re cocky, undeservedly so. Maybe they trust in a higher power/ruler to the point of being blinded by that trust. Maybe they always put themselves first. Maybe they absolutely love animals of all kinds, or all kinds except for a certain specific one.

This is another way to deepen your character’s personality, because you can continue to push deeper, asking yourself why that person trusts so deeply or why that other person loves all but one sort of animal, etc. What happened to them in their lives creates who they are and by combining a physical trait with an invisible trait for each and every character you’ll have an easier time allowing the reader to differentiate them all.

3) Make it magical.

I’m a fantasy writer, man. Take one or both of the traits above for some of your characters and make it magic! Give them sparkly hair! Make them blow things up with their minds if they get too angry! Make them feel someone else’s pain! Or give them earrings that talk!

I don’t know… go wild!

Because it will add something special to that character yet again. Something none of the other characters have or can do. And that will just make each character that much more distinct.

~Emmi