One problem than plagues most writers is creating characters that are too similar -- too much like themselves. If I had it my way, my stories would be full of middle-age fat bald guys. Hey, it might not be interesting be it’d be easy for me to “get into their brains.” Okay – not a good idea. How then shall we create characters? Here are seven ideas you can use to populate your story with diverse characters.
1. Make characters physically different. I took a Disney animation course once where animators discussed how they chose a “cast.” According to them, the ideal cast consists of a diverse group of characters. The starting point is physical characteristics. Select characters where some are tall, some short, some overweight, some skinny, some beautiful, some not so much. On another occasion I sat in on the decision about casting the move “Closure: The Problem with Money.” The director talked about the importance of selecting a supporting cast only after the key players are in place. This is obvious when some characters are supposed to be children of the others – but it is also important for the cast to have a “look” – not that they all had to be similar kind of people – but that the group form an interesting ensemble of people. So it is in any story – select cast members that are physically different from each other – to tell them apart and to bring diversity to the story.
2. Select characters that are emotionally and culturally different. Marge is a whiner. She’s best friends with Kathy who is an optimist. George is a staunch God-fearing Republican whose house backs up to his neighbors Buffy and Hank the nudists who like to take midnight skinny dips. Abu the Hindu gets stuck in the elevator for 11 hours with Donna the voluptuous Pentecostal gospel singer. And they both have to pee. Diverse people make interesting things happen. Of course, sometimes people who are too similar make things happen as well. What about the two feisty red-headed teenagers who both want to be the head cheerleader – they are similar in many ways but you’ve still got to find something that makes them different so they will take a different route to achieving the same goal.
3. Create characters with different sounding names. There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet. Use them generously when selecting names. Readers or viewers easily get confused when Mary the detective is after Merriam the hitchhiker because she’s suspected of killing Martha the heiress. Carefully select each name to be different from others. Rarely create characters with names that begin with the same letter – unless there is a reason. You might have triplets named Larry, Luke, and Leonard… if you do have such a situation -- you need to give each one of them some unique characteristic that separates them in your story, otherwise your audience will get confused.
4. Give characters different voices. Authors tend to write dialog using their own voice. Don’t do it. It is a sure killer for any story. Listen to other people speak. Choose what makes their choice of words different – don’t depend on different accents -- an Irish brogue versus a southern drawl. Let choice of words, length of phrases, level of formality, intelligence and other aspects of language define your characters. Sit in a public place and listen to people talking. Write down phrases you hear. Develop an ear for each character so you can hear them talk – and then write down what they say.
5. Give characters differing life goals. People react to situations because of their beliefs or life goals. Two people find an envelope on a city street. It contains $500 and no other identification. A person who gambles, cheats on his income tax or who needs to buy cocaine will react differently than a honest-as-the-day-is-long janitor or a Sunday School teacher (we hope.) Specifically pick out, write down, know by heart, the core beliefs of each of your characters. That way when they are put in challenging situations, you will know how they might act. Plus – make sure the reader has an inkling of that character’s belief system so when they do act, it is not “out of character.” If your character does something unexpected – make sure there was some seed planted earlier (and maybe not fully revealed until later) to explain the behavior.
6. Use character tags. We don’t like to pigeon-hole people or make them one-dimensional, but tags do help define a character. Do you want your banquet dinner prepared by the cigar-chewing short order cook with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeves? How about by the fastidious blue-ribbon chef who takes the temperature of every pot at precise thirty minute intervals and insists that the floor is kept squeaky clean? Tags can define quick aspects of a character – but it doesn’t have to limiting them. The fastidious chef may NASCAR fan and the short-order cook might also train seeing-eye dogs because his kid sister is blind. By all means never create a character that is a perfect representation of a tag.
7. Give characters different but specific purposes within the story. Most characters are included in a story for a specific reason. A wise-cracking brother-in-law might give your story some levity. If he does – let him do his wise-cracking job throughout the story – don’t change him (without reason) into a sullen pessimist half-way though – unless that’s necessary for your story. Create specific characters to do certain tasks within your story. Your hero, for example – will have redeeming qualities that make him or her able to face up to some dire circumstance that the story will provide. Your hero may have an ally – someone who is a helper (Sam in Lord of the Rings comes to mind.) He may have a mentor, an opponent, a love interest, and so on – each one with a specific task to do in moving the story forward. Of course there are also shadow or changeling characters who start off as one type of character (an ally) and are later revealed to be something else (they are really a mole for the enemy.)
Look back at these items – they have to do with creating an interesting ensemble of diverse characters who will be able to carry your story. Your homework is to make a list of characters in your current or proposed story. For each character write down how they meet each one of these seven criteria. Use this as a start to then flesh out other biographical characteristics of each character – get to know them as unique individuals.
(c) Alan C. Elliott, 2008