How To Write Distinct Characters

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On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes shares her creative writing advice for how to write distinct characters and why it’s important for your story.

Written by JJ Barnes

When you’re writing lots of different characters, it’s quite easy to fall into the trap of making all your characters be different versions of yourself. They might look different and have different goals, but their personalities blur into one another and their speech patterns are identical, so it ends up reading like you’re having conversations with yourself. I’ll be explaining why writing distinct characters is important, and techniques you can use to do it well.

Distinct Characters Make Your Story Interesting

If everybody is essentially the same person, and talks in the same way, there will be no natural conflict in the conversation, and conflict is what makes the story interesting.

It is always more entertaining and interesting to have multiple personalities on the page or screen. There will be friendly people, aggressive people, shy people and confident people. If they have negative behaviour patterns it leaves room for growth and change. A story arc where you follow a character’s development always makes them more entertaining to read or watch.

If you’re writing an ensemble cast, it is especially important to make your characters distinct, and also an easier trap to fall into to not doing so.

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You’re trying to balance multiple motivations and activities as well as your main plot, and the conversation style of the characters becomes less important and those characters all become variants on the same person. For you, it makes the job easier, for your audience, it makes it dull because the story will lack drama.

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Develop Different Personalities

When you start creating your character personalities, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to like all your characters. This is something I personally struggled with when I started out. I wasn’t good at writing characters who, unless they were a clear villain, behaved in ways I didn’t like or wasn’t comfortable with.

Good characters can make bad choices and do things that you personally wouldn’t do. Your characters are not part of you, make them free to do things that you wouldn’t do, things that you don’t like, and they won’t all be carbon copies of you.

Pose a Moral Dilemma To Create Your Distinct Characters

One way to do this is, is to imagine your collection of characters standing together and pose a question to them. Something complex, such as a moral question or a political one, and work out how each of the characters would respond. In a room full of people, you’re going to get a room full of opinions. Some will agree on some points, disagree on others, but there will be different opinions.

Then work out how your characters reply. Are they confident or are they shy? Do they try to dominate the debate? Are they reasonable or hostile, are they willing to change their mind with argument or are they steadfast?

The way they respond, and what they respond with, demonstrates their personality. Carry that throughout your story in how they respond to any scenario you put them in, and they’ll keep that distinct character trait that you want.

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Conflict Between Characters

Once you’ve got these clear and distinct personalities, it’s easy to play with them. You can add conflict on a scene level through disagreements or misunderstandings, or just making someone in that scene uncomfortable with a character’s responses to a scenario.

      Conflict is essential for making your story interesting and it will bring your story alive. Even a simple question between friends in a scene of “what should we do tonight?” opens up possibilities for a range of opinions with fallout from the conversation.

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Once you’ve established character personalities, you can challenge your characters to change, you can show layers. Perhaps your initially hostile and abrasive character has a vulnerable side, damage in their past that makes them behave that way when challenged. Allowing for change and layers in your diverse characters makes them more interesting and human.

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Flaws Make Distinct Characters Relatable

The more human your characters are, the more relatable they are, and even if you don’t agree with everything a character does (and a flawless character is boring), you and your audience will find a way to connect with them when you show multiple facets of their personalities.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

You can find links to all my work and social media on my website:

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Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose

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