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