Writing Distinct Characters

paperpeople I didn’t get as much editing in last year as I would have liked, and I hope to remedy that this year. To that end, I started working on edits for a book I drafted a couple years ago and, after plopping myself down in the middle of an early chapter conversation, I realized something horrible- I couldn’t tell who was talking. I’m notorious among my beta readers for sparse, vague, or no attribution tags and I like to think that normally I can kind of get away with it because the characters have distinct enough voices that you can mostly tell who is speaking anyway.

But not this conversation. Both characters sounded exactly the same- they both sighed, rolled their eyes, raised their voices, used the same diction. They were indecipherable. And that is a huge problem.

Now, I was incredibly relieved to find that they grew their own voices after another chapter or two, but it got me thinking- what are some of the key elements of crafting a cast of distinct characters? How can you make sure that each of yours is clear and unique enough that, even without attribution tags, readers can still tell who is who?

Before you can even get into the nitty gritty of how to set your characters apart, it’s important to know the background and personality of the characters. Without a solid knowledge of these attributes, it will be hard to write believable differences into your cast. So the more a character talks, the more detail you’ll want in your character bio. Know where they grew up, their social class, their outlooks on life, their history, their first language, etc. All these things will inform the ways that you make your characters unique on the page.

So what can a writer focus on to make it easy for readers to tell who’s who? Let’s look at a few ideas!

Attribution Tags Those things before or after quotes of text- he said, she said, they said, Sally shouted, Bob asked, etc. They’re helpful in long conversations, dialog with lots of participants, and lots of other situations, but ideally, your characters’ voices are so distinct that these can be removed, and readers will still know who’s talking. (But you wouldn’t want to actually remove them all from your text- while readers could still figure out who’s talking, it takes a lot more thought to do so, making for a slower- and therefore less engaging- read. Put in just enough to keep everything clear and moving forward.)

Speech Patterns This one is also pretty commonly talked about, but it’s worth a bit more detail. Is your character’s tongue a slang-studded slathering of pop culture? Do they use way more words than necessary? Do they like really long words? Do they mispronounce? Does their language lilt? Each of your characters should tell different styles of jokes, make differing comparisons, etc. A character from Dublin will obviously use very different speech patterns than a character from Taipei, but even two New Yorkers will each use a distinct idiolect all their own, based on the people they grew up around, where they went to school, what they do for a living, etc.

Tics and Physical Cues Do you have a character who laughs out loud, and then quickly claps her hands over her mouth? Do you have another character who sucks on the hem of his tee shirt when he’s nervous? Congratulations, these characters have different physical cues for readers! Does every character in your cast frequently sigh and/or roll their eyes? Maybe work on that! *coughs* Physical cues can be anything from a mention of a particular hair color to the use of a particular tic. (For an example of a tic, when I’m nervous or embarrassed, I widen my eyes and duck my chin, but maintain strict eye contact. If my hands are free, I squeeze my left fingers in my right ones, with my arms pressed tight against my sides. Even knowing I do this, I cannot stop, which usually makes me blush as well. When my husband is nervous, he nods a lot, repeats himself in a soft voice, and doesn’t maintain eye contact very well, frequently glancing away. These are our different tics, even though we’re both white 32-year-old middle class Americans.)

Attitude Are your characters chatty? Do they use slang? Are they rude to servants? Do they talk with their hands?  Are they moody, or hopeful, or angry? Are they focused on the pudding their mom just brought in, or are they wondering where their wife got those new diamond earrings, or are they hoping their husband doesn’t notice that their hands are shaking? Even if you have two characters from the same town, same class, same race, even the same household, they should still be distinct in their attitudes and expectations. So who in your cast is an incorrigible pessimist? Which one is certain love will conquer all? Who’s sure their boss is out to get them? These attitudes will factor into the things the character notices and talks about, and inform their distinct personality.

These are just a few broad ideas to keep in mind, and there’s often bleed-over between them. Every person in the world is mommy’s special snowflake, and while story characters could never attain the same level of complexity as a real person, we are authors do our best to present the illusion of that same level of complexity and believability. That illusion is shattered when characters don’t sound and look and feel unique on the page. (Unless you’re writing about the Borg. I guess if you’re writing about the Borg, good work, carry on?)

Until next week, happy writing!

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