5 Tips For Making Your Characters Distinct

You might think confusing characters only happen in movies.

It’s easy to get characters visually mixed up when the actors/actresses have the same good looks and do-good temperament.

But it happens on the page too. And why wouldn’t it? The characters come from the mind of one person, the voice of one writer, and that can lead to characters that aren’t distinct from each other. To avoid that, give these tips a try.

5 Tips For Making Your Characters Distinct

1) Don’t Make Them Sound The Same

Easier said than done, right? Especially through the first few drafts when you didn’t know them so well and you were just throwing dialogue on the page.

If you find that you can add any character name on the end of any dialogue that ends in “he/she said” and it makes no difference to what’s being said then your characters sound the same and you need to do something about it.

That something is tailoring the dialogue to your characters. Just as people have their own way of greeting someone (hi, hello, hey, howdy), your characters should be given different ways of saying things.

Let’s look at these two pieces of dialogue:

“Here is the situation.”
“Here’s the sitch.”

Same words/meaning, but they sound so different. The first belongs to a more formal character, while the second is definitely a character who is laid back, and each has an automatic distinct voice even though they’re saying the same thing.

Look for how you can achieve those kinds of differences in dialogue with your own characters and throw in action beats that suit each character, i.e. one might always twirl the ends of her hair when talking, while another can’t keep still and fidgets. By trying these suggestions, none of your characters should sound the same.

2) Give Them Different Styles

Even though reading about characters isn’t as visual as seeing them on a screen, you can still separate their sameness by giving them different styles. Hair length and color, even the way they style their hair (always in a ponytail, or always straight) gives distinction. Zero in on items of clothing, such as always putting your MC in blue jeans, or long dresses, and dressing other characters in button-down shirts.

3) No Names That Are Similar

Try to avoid giving your characters similar-sounding names. Some writers even go as far to make sure none of the names start with the same letter.

Does that mean you need to come up with wild names for each character? No (unless your book world is sci-fi or fantasy-based), just try to avoid Glen and Glenda or Dave and David and you should be okay.

4) Play Up Different Quirks

You could make these quirks zany for automatic distinction, or play up something normal but limit it to one character. For example, in my YA series, Blackbirch, the characters eat, but there’s one character who’s always eating food. So much so that when his friends are doing something dangerous, he is more concerned with raiding a lolly jar (in the book’s context, it’s much cooler than how it sounds here, I swear).

The quirk of being food-obsessed makes this character stand out, and as it’s limited to just him, the reader associates the quirk and knows only this character will care when food comes up. Once such a quirk’s established, it separates a character from all others.

5) Dig Deep On Their Personalities

If you dig deep on your character’s personalities, work out their backstories and give them traits that would be unique to them, none of them will be the same.

Just as in real life where the things that happen to us shape who we become, give the same detail to your characters. How would one character who never had to work hard in their life react to starting from scratch? How would another character who has never had anything to their name handle a million-dollar lotto win?

It might take detailed character profiles or penning backstory that won’t be included in the MS for you to work out these details and apply it to your characters, but that hard work will be worth it. Paired with a unique voice, quirk, style, and name, all your characters will be distinct.

— K.M. Allan

You can find me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

18 thoughts on “5 Tips For Making Your Characters Distinct

  1. Ruth Miranda

    2 and 3 I like to tweak a little. Meaning at one point in a certain series, I had these group of people who were ALWAYS together – and some of them had been together for centuries – and so they were very alike. They dressed in very similar manner, they spoke very similarly, used the same expressions much of the time to the point they seemed like the same person, which was intentional (i took the inspo from my own life, actually, from a friend of my husband’s who constantly said the me and the hubs were so similar we seemed like the same person, because we dressed in the same style, spoke alike, used the same expressions, finished each other’s sentences). Sadly, I must have failed to make it noticeable that this was purely intentional, because there was another character in the book who moulded herself to anyone she was with, meaning she started dressing like them, or talking like them, or even reacting like they did, which I also took from my real life as I had a friend who was just like that. But I realise I failed to make this feel intentional in the book, as I received a lot of criticism for it, most saying the characters all sounded the same and dressed the same and even looked the same. As for the similar names, there’s one certain trilogy I wrote where an entire family have VERY similar names to one another – which was intentional from their parents – so similar to the point I am aware most readers will be like “wait, who is this now? The eldest or the middle sibbling?” although I tried to give them very different personalities and traits. But I know that at the start of the story readers will be confused. Still, the names are such a huge part of the ambiance for those books I refuse to change them eheheheh. But I do feel that I have a huge difficulty making up characters who are unique and not read like a copy of one another, it’s something I have been trying to work harder at but still feel like I keep failing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your experiences, Ruth. If the similarities are intentional then these tips don’t apply, but like you said, the author needs to make it obvious it’s intentional or it can get confusing/frustrating for the reader.

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  2. Lyn Webster

    I think I do usually keep my characters distinct, because they’re very distinct to me and that naturally comes out in how they talk and dress and behave. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. And a while back, I did have two characters that were very similar in some ways, but served different purposes in the story, meaning I couldn’t combine them into one, which I’ve done a couple of times before. I dug a bit deeper, and discovered that one of them had a brisk, no-nonsense way of talking and moving, whereas the other was more serene and measured. Problem solved.

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  3. Great tips Kate! I read a book recently with 4 POV characters, and I constantly had to go back and check with character’s chapter it was, as their voices were identical. Your advice on distinct voice is so important, along with the rest! x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Meelie 😊. I felt that way when reading Girl On The Train. Even though it was only two POVs, sometimes they were so similar I had to go back and check the name at the start of the chapter to work out who I was reading.

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  4. Characters that sound the same are my biggest peeve with multiple POV stories – the characters end up sounding exactly the same.

    Something that I’ve taken to doing is filling out character cards (index cards) with all the info on my characters. I’ll add two or three traits, like if they’re snarky, polite, witty. It helps me get a better sense of how that character would speak and act.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is so good. I try to think back at all the crazy/cool friends I hung out with. After I do that I take a piece of them and place them in one of my characters and I make sure I’m locked in. I have to be consistent in who they are throughout the book.

    The other thing you mentioned are names. It’s a simple fix but without that fix it can lead to a huge problem. Avoid the same letter. Make sure they don’t rhyme and so on.

    Excellent as always. This is a fun topic.

    Liked by 1 person

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