One of the most important aspects of a story, if not the most important, is your character creation. Characters provide the depth, connection, and relatability that readers are searching for within a book. Even the most intriguing plot falls flat if the characters don’t leap off the page.
One of the easiest pitfalls when creating characters is making multiple that sound very similar and don’t feel unique. As a writer, you want your reader to know your character so well that they will hear a phrase and know that’s something they would or wouldn’t say. If each character is just a different hair color, you’ll never have readers falling in love with the people within your story (and maybe not even making it to the end before they put it down).
But fear not, dear writer! Today, we’ll be going over how to check if your current characters are unique and how to write unique characters from scratch. Both can help create an engaging story your readers will love.
Are Your Current Characters Unique?
There are a few simple tests that you can do that will help you check to see if your characters and their voice are unique. While you can do each of these on your own, I highly recommend asking a friend or colleague to also read the story through and perform these tests. What may seem wildly different to you (as the author, you know them inside and out), may seem remarkably similar to a reader.
Test 1: Start with dialogue
Search your document for quotation marks. Read the dialogue only and see if you can tell who has spoken before you read the attribution (s/he said). Can you tell the difference between characters? Do you immediately know some of the phrases or way of speaking is X character?
You can also copy and paste a dozen or so dialogue bits into a separate document if that is easier than ignoring the attribution.
Test 2: Test their descriptions
Choose three words to describe your characters for each of the following:
- If the character was describing themselves.
- If the friends/side characters were describing them.
- If the antagonist was describing them.
Do this for three to five characters and compare. How many words are similar between characters? If there are two or more between any character for the same category, those two may be too similar.
Test 3: Write it out
This is my favorite one. Choose a character from your favorite book that you know extremely well. Write out scenes with that character meeting each one of your characters. Do the interactions feel or sound different? Each of your characters should interact differently with your book character. If the interactions feel the same, your characters might not be distinctive. You can use this Author’s Journal to write it all out.
Creating Unique Characters
You are starting your writing journey by creating some phenomenal characters. That’s the best place to start. Unless you already have specifics laid out for your characters (if so, go back to the above section), you’ll need to begin to create characters that are distinct, interesting, and have depth. Use these tips and tricks to do just that.
Tip 1: Give them personality quirks
Choose three or so distinctive likes or dislikes that can color their personality. These aren’t the main personality traits that matter to the plot but simple things that will make us feel like we understand the character. Maybe they really love jazz. Or they’ve always wanted to climb Mount Everest. Or perhaps they really don’t like cats. These quirks will help us picture them as a whole character different from the others.
Tip 2: Give them distinctive patterns
Choose three or so things they consistently do, either in speech or physical behavior. Do they phrase statements as if they were questions? Do they pick at their nails when they’re nervous? Do they chortle loudly when they’re fake laughing? These details will help us predict their behavior (which can be very helpful to the plot as well) but will help a reader picture them and separate them from other characters.
Tip 3: Tell us who they care about
When we know who they love and why, we begin to see characters as more distinctive individuals. Especially if they love someone who is unexpected or they love someone for a different reason than other characters do. This underlying motivation will make a character stand out and provide depth.
Tip 4: Make sure they physically look different
This may seem like a simple idea, but it’s easy to overlook. Once you’ve made sure that the characters don’t look identical, reread your descriptions to see if the wording is similar. Even if one character has blonde hair and another brown, if it is described with similar word choices and nuances, it’s easy to blur them together. Try to use distinctive word choices. For example, if you describe one character’s hair as “golden curls you could run your hands through” and another’s as “brown locks messed as if he constantly ran his hands through it”, these similar choices could confuse a reader and your characters will lose some of their unique qualities in the reader’s eye.
Tip 5: They don’t have to be “unique”
I say this one to make a point. Clearly we want all our characters to feel distinct and like their own character. However, we don’t want characters who are unique and different to the point of being unrelatable. They don’t have to juggle chainsaws in their spare time for readers to know who they are. Make sure they fit the role they play in the story. If they are a normal high school boy, he should have normal high school boy interests. If it’s a woodland elf, it would make sense that they enjoy the forest. Uniqueness can be found within. If it’s not moving the plot forward, don’t make them “unique” for its own sake.
These five tips will hopefully help you create side characters who are memorable and main characters who are unforgettable.
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