How do you distinguish one character from another in your story? Do you actively seek to maintain that difference, or do they all blend into a half-this-half-that narrative voice? Do they all react similarly to what you throw at them, no matter who they are and how they‘re supposed to approach life?
These are important questions for every fiction writer to address, and return to regularly.
When giving our characters life and then following them through a plot, there are two things we can monitor to make sure they are true to themselves: Dialogue and physical actions and reactions.
Each person has a unique pattern of speech. This is a fact. We use some words more than others, we use certain phrases, certain structure… Some of us tell a story in one short sentence that others might tell in a five minute speech. This makes us easily recognized in a room full of people, at least to those who know us.
It all begins with voice
Identifying your characters’ speech pattern is similar to finding your writing voice. I’d advise you to go dig into a few articles on the topic and see what exercises and tips they offer. My personal favorite is over at Men with Pens: “How to find your writing voice“.
When familiar with the concept, or if you are already, apply the knowledge to your character development. Give your heroes voices you feel match the personality you already mapped out and developed to some extent.
To each his own
The first round of voice-casting is easy. You might want your character to sound uptight, young or old, naive, uneducated or snobbish… General terms are easily applied and that‘s a good start, but you’ll want to take it a step further.
Give each character some character! Your snob might over-use “rather” and tend to start every story with “when we were at the summer house recently…” Your eager twenty-something student might fit “dude” into every other sentence and misuse some common phrase…
You catch my drift. Dialogue is often a major part of fiction and we want our readers to feel the diversity of our characters through that obvious medium.
Physical action & reaction
Just like with dialogue, physical actions follow a pattern. Each person tends to blush under similar circumstances, laugh at similar things and go through a spike in blood-pressure during similar experiences. Sometimes we do this unconsciously, sometimes knowingly. Your characters are no exception, or shouldn’t be.
Stop cracking your knuckles!
Little habits and quirks go easily unnoticed until we focus on them. If you’d study someone’s movement and reaction to situations, people, words… You’d soon see how he scratches his beard a lot when he’s thinking, his foot is constantly on the move when he’s bored and he’s much more comfortable with man-to-man touch when watching football…
These little things pile up and form a living breathing person you can easily write realistically, and in a way that registers to your readers. (I bet you already pictured that guy I described!)
It‘s in the details
Focus on what makes each of your characters unique. It doesn’t have to be a major thing, it might be as trivial as wrinkling his nose when things smell bad, just make sure you have a little (or a lot) that defines them.
Your readers love to feel like they know your characters, and with every quirk you put out there you give them something to build on. Just make sure you don’t go over the top and create a character that is nothing BUT nervous habits.
Following the patterns
As you write your story and your characters develop into multidimensional people, practically leaping off the page, take some time to re-visit those original thoughts. Your characters might grow out of some habits and adopt new ones, but over all they should be consistent.
The same goes for their voice. Their dialogue style might change a little through the course of the story, but they should be recognizable as the same person. Right?
To make it easy
Create a little list of identifying patterns for each character, put it with your other character notes. Use examples, such as: “angry = bites lower lip, says “okay” a lot, doesn’t make eye-contact”. Then, when you need to check on how you’re doing, you consult the list. It’s also a very convenient tool to use when writing new scenes.
What you get from doing this, thinking about this, is a clear sense of difference and identity amongst your characters. You become aware of the nuances that shape your written dialogue and relationships. You find fresh angles and points of view by understanding your heroes better.
Isn’t that what we‘re going for?