How To Write Distinct Characters
I’ll be writing about the video Making Your Characters Distinct – writing advice for authors and screenwriters, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
If you’re a new writer, it’s quite easy to fall into the trap of making all your characters be different versions of yourself. They might look different and have different goals, but their personalities blur into one another and their speech patterns are identical, so it ends up reading like you’re having conversations with yourself.
If everybody is essentially the same person, and talks in the same way, there will be no natural conflict in the conversation, and conflict is what makes the story interesting. It is always more entertaining and interesting to have multiple personalities on the page or screen, and if they have negative behaviour patterns it leaves room for growth and change, A story arc where you follow a character’s development always makes them more interesting.
If you’re writing an ensemble cast, it is both more especially important to make your characters distinct, and also an easier trap to fall into to not make them distinct. You’re trying to balance multiple motivations and activities as well as your main plot, and the conversation style of the characters becomes less important and those characters all become variants on the same person. For you, it makes the job easier, for your audience, it makes it dull because the story will lack drama.
When you start creating your character personalities, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to LIKE all your characters. This is something I personally struggled with when I started out. I wasn’t good at writing characters who, unless they were a clear villain, behaved in ways I didn’t like or wasn’t comfortable with. Good characters can make bad choices and do things that you personally wouldn’t do. Your characters are not part of you, make them free to do things that you wouldn’t do, things that you don’t like, and they won’t all be carbon copies of you.
One way to do this is, is to imagine your collection of characters standing together and pose a question to them. Something complex, such as a moral question or a political one, and work out how each of the characters would respond. In a room full of people, you’re going to get a room full of opinions. Some will agree on some points, disagree on others, but there will be different opinions.
Then work out HOW your characters reply. Are they confident, are they shy, are they dominating, are the reasonable or hostile, are they willing to change their mind with argument or are they steadfast? The way they respond, and what they respond with, demonstrates their personality. Carry that throughout your story in how they respond to any scenario you put them in, and they’ll keep that distinct character trait that you want.
Once you’ve got these clear and distinct personalities, it’s easy to play with them. It’s easy to put conflict on a scene level through disagreements or misunderstandings, or just being uncomfortable with a character’s responses to things. Conflict is essential for making your story interesting and it will bring your story alive. Even a simple question between friends in a scene of “what should we do tonight?” opens up possibilities for a range of opinions with fallout from the conversation.
Once you’ve established character personalities, you can challenge your characters to change, you can show layers. Perhaps your initially hostile and abrasive character has a vulnerable side, damage in their past that makes them behave that way when challenged. Allowing for change and layers in your diverse characters makes them more interesting and human.
The more human your characters are, the more relatable they are, and even if you don’t agree with everything a character does (and a flawless character is boring), you and your audience will find a way to connect with them when you show multiple facets of their personalities.
You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get!