Wednesday, July 26

How to Write Characters Who Don’t All Feel the Same

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In a novel, all readers have to get to know the characters are the words on a page. Sure, characters speak and shrug and move around, but even the dialogue is read, not heard. As writers, we know our characters better than any reader ever will because we know all the details that don’t show up in the words.

We know what their voice sounds like, we know how they move, their little quirks and mannerisms, their smell, their physical presence and whatnot. We know the things that make a person a person and not just a group of words that describe that person.

To us, their dialogue is spoken in a certain way, they move in a particular fashion, and their mannerisms carry great meaning. But to readers…not so much. Which is how we wind up with characters who all sound the same. So even if the scene (or worse, the novel) is doing everything it’s supposed to do, readers can still feel meh about it. “Sure,” they say, “it wasn’t bad, but I never really cared that much about what was going on.”

They got the gist of the novel, but they never saw its soul.

For example, say we have a scene where Bob and the gals are camped out in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of town. It’s been quiet, no zombie sightings for the last few days, and they’re enjoying some much-needed rest. They know they need to get moving, but it’s hard to abandon a safe spot. Bob wants to stay, Sally wants to go, and Jane is (as always) caught in the middle. The whole point of this scene is to show that Bob is tired of running, but is scared to stand up to Sally.

We might write such a scene like:
Bob grabbed a beer from the cooler. “I don’t see why we have to leave. It’s quiet here. Safe.”

“For now,” Sally said. “But it’s a bad place to be caught unprepared. No defenses.”

“Can we create some?” asked Jane.

Sally frowned. “With what?”

“I don’t know.” Jane waved a hand at the window. “There are a lot of trees out there.”

“You want to bang on trees and tell every zombie in the area where we are?”
It’s not a bad snippet. There’s conflict about leaving, there’s a question hanging in the air, there’s potential danger suggested to create a little tension. But it doesn’t tell us anything beyond the words spoken. It doesn’t say anything about the characters or who they are. In fact, if we rearranged the names, nothing would change.
Jane grabbed a beer from the cooler. “I don’t see why we have to leave. It’s quiet here. Safe.”

“For now,” Bob said. “But it’s a bad place to be caught unprepared. No defenses.”

“Can we create some?” asked Sally.

Bob frowned. “With what?”

“I don’t know.” Sally waved a hand at the window. “There are a lot of trees out there.”

“You want to bang on trees and tell every zombie in the area where we are?”
We learn nothing new despite the changes. But I’d bet long-time readers of this site know enough about Bob, Sally, and Jane by now to read this snippet differently than brand-new visitors. They “know” what new readers don’t, just like we do with our own characters.

This is a fairly typical snippet for any scene—it shows what’s going on, and who is speaking. For fun, let’s get rid of the dialogue entirely and see what’s physically happening in this scene:
Bob grabbed a beer from the cooler.

Sally said.

Asked Jane.

Sally frowned.

Jane waved a hand at the window.
(Here’s more on using body language)

Granted, no one would ever write a scene like this, but look how boring it is. It’s bland stage direction and none of it shows who these characters are. Now let’s flip it and just look at the dialogue:
“I don’t see why we have to leave. It’s quiet here. Safe.”

“For now. But it’s a bad place to be caught unprepared. No defenses.”

“Can we create some?”

“With what?”

“I don’t know. There are a lot of trees out there.”

“You want to bang on trees and tell every zombie in the area where we are?”
(Here’s more on creating character voice) 

It’s just as bland. The only hint of voice in this entire snippet is the last line. Next, let’s take a closer look at the characters and I’ll share what I know about them:

Bob: He’s married to Sally, but in love with Jane. He’s not a strong man, though he’s trying to be better, and trying to gather the courage to ask Sally for a divorce. But if she leaves them, he knows they’ll never survive without her. He doesn’t stand up for himself as much as he should.

Sally: She’s tough, sarcastic, a bit of a control freak who thinks very little of her husband. She thinks Jane is a weak link who’s just dragging them down, but she also doesn’t want to abandon the poor sap to the zombies. She feels stuck, and this makes her mad on a regular basis.

Jane: Jane is scared all the time, and doesn’t trust Sally. She thinks Bob might have a crush on her and isn’t sure how she feels about that. She doesn’t want Sally to notice, because she fears what Sally might do. She wants to be helpful and earn her place in this trio, but by now, she’s figured out that Sally has no respect or patience for her at all.

Knowing these details, let’s look back at that first snippet and read it using this knowledge:

Bob grabbed a beer from the cooler. “I don’t see why we have to leave. It’s quiet here. Safe.” [He wants to stay there with Jane and not face the zombies that prove his personal failings over and over. But he’s not suggesting anything outright, because he’s not confident enough to make demands. He’s casual, staying neutral to avoid irritating Sally]

“For now,” Sally said. “But it’s a bad place to be caught unprepared. No defenses.” [She’s always thinking about how to survive and what might happen. She’s also assuming control of the situation]

“Can we create some?” asked Jane. [She’s trying to be helpful, not realizing questioning Sally will just annoy her. She says this is a meek voice, almost pleading]

Sally frowned. “With what?” [Probably said with a lot of attitude because she’s so sick of Jane not getting it and offering dumb suggestions]

“I don’t know.” [She realizes she messed up again] Jane waved a hand at the window. “There are a lot of trees out there.” [She tries to back up her suggestion, but it comes across a little whiny because now Sally has her on the defensive]

“You want to bang on trees and tell every zombie in the area where we are?” [Lots of attitude in Sally’s reply, because now she is annoyed and tired of being the only one in this trio trying to keep them alive]

Does any of that come through in the words? I’d bet very little, if any. But now that you know what’s behind these characters, if you go back and read it again, what changes? Do you change how the voices sound? Do you mentally add body language that conveys the true feelings of these people?

(Here’s more on fleshing out flat characters)

Let’s look at this one last time and use what we know about them to tweak the details so these characters stand out from one another.
Bob grabbed a beer from the cooler, hiding his shaking hands behind a warm can. “It’s not a bad place to hole up for a while. Seems quiet. Safe.”

“Sure, for now,” Sally scoffed. She pushed aside the curtains and scanned the perimeter again. “But if a zombie catches our scent it’s a death trap. Squat for defenses.”

“Can we create something?” asked Jane softly.

Sally glared. “With what?”

“Well, um.” Jane looked away and waved a hand toward the window. “The trees? Maybe we can cut some down and—”

Really? Bang on a bunch of tress and ring the dinner bell for every zombie within miles to hear?”
(Here are five ways to develop character voice)

We can improve this even more with a stronger POV and some internalization, but even with these minor changes this snippet is much better and these characters feel more defined. Even breaking this into dialogue and action tells a bigger story:
Bob grabbed a beer from the cooler, hiding his shaking hands behind a warm can.

Sally scoffed. She pushed aside the curtains and scanned the perimeter again.

Asked Jane softly.

Sally glared.

Jane looked away and waved a hand toward the window.
You might not know what they’re talking about here, but it’s much clearer there’s tension about something. Bob is scared, Sally is angry, Jane is nervous. This sums up the core of who they are. Look at the dialogue now:
“It’s not a bad place to hole up for a while. Seems quiet. Safe.”

“Sure, for now. But if a zombie catches our scent it’s a death trap. Squat for defenses.”

“Can we create something?”

“With what?”

“Well, um. The trees? Maybe we can cut some down and—”

Really? Bang on a bunch of tress and ring the dinner bell for every zombie within miles to hear?”
Bob and Jane are a little interchangeable still, but if we gave Bob another line or two of dialogue we could show his voice better. In a full scene, he’d shine through a lot better than in the original version.

This is a tiny snippet, but hopefully it’s enough to see how a few small tweaks can change a scene without changing what’s going on in that scene. Word choice matters when trying to show who the characters are and how they’re different from one another.

Think about the character’s personality and how they’d reveal that personality. Who they are colors everything they do and say, and you can use that personality to turn general characters into unique people readers will care about.

Do your characters sound the same? How to you differentiate between them? What tricks or techniques do you use?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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6 comments:

  1. This is something I need to work on. My characters are monotone just like described in the first part of this post. I do use narrative to get the personalities across but, actually, it is separate from dialogue. I need to change that.

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    1. Good luck! Hope it goes well for you :)

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  2. I'm all for making characters more real, and I'm sure my fiction lags in this area. But, the first version of the scene had 78 words, and the last version had 109. That's a 40% increase. So how do you do this without making a 70,000 word novel become a 100,000 word novel?

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    1. Great question! What typically happens, is you end up cutting words in other areas because you no longer need them. You've shown who the character is so you don't need three lines of description someplace else. The writer is overall tighter and doing more with fewer words, so it all balances out.

      Of course, if all you did was add more without cutting back on unnecessary words, then bloating the novel could indeed happen, but you usually end up with the same or close to the same word count.

      This is a great topic so I think I'll write more about this next week :) Thanks!

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  3. I think one of the secrets for nailing this is to think about the worldview of the different characters. I have a character that is a very old empress (the antagonist), who lived and ruled for so long and got so tired of the people she rules, she doesn't even care about any problems in the city, because after decades she thinks people bring problems to themselves despite her efforts. In one scene, she walks into a slum in the city and all she can think of is how that part of the city smells badly. Later in the novel, one characters goes to the same slum and is shocked to see how awful living conditions are there.

    For some, pidgeons are a symbol of peace, for others they are just flying rats.

    Worldview is deeper than traits or mannerisms and will help to flesh out different voices, but it is still a challenge to make different worldviews to stand out in the pages.

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  4. Absolutely. That's classic POV. Terrific examples, too.

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