Thursday, October 3, 2013

How to Avoid Creating Repeat Characters

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

A writer asked me about how to avoid creating repeat characters. This is a great question, and it's something that most (I would venture to say all) writers struggle with at some point. You become fearful of writing the same sassy main character, the same witty best friend, the same overbearing boyfriend. I think there are two approaches to keeping your characters unique from each other:



In writing:

The first way you can avoid creating repeat characters is by intentionally writing different back stories for your characters. Say you know five women who would describe themselves as feminists. I bet they each would define the word a bit differently, and if you were to press into their back stories, you would find five different journeys that shaped their brand of feminism.

Spend time getting to know your characters. You can do this with a bunch of different character exercises. Some will work better for you than they do for me and vice versa.


One of my favorite exercises when I'm struggling with a character's voice is to write a character journal, which I've explained in this post.

But the biggest way I unearth my characters is by spending time with them in the first draft. By the end of the first draft, I've discovered who the major players are in the story and who I need to invest more time getting to know. Don't underestimate how valuable the first draft is for learning more about how your characters tick.

In your regular life:

Surround yourself with diverse people, diverse entertainment, and diverse ideas and information and you'll notice a difference in the complexity of your stories.

Diverse people:
Is everyone you know pro-choice? Do they all vote a specific way? Are most of them a particular religion? When I look back at old manuscripts of mine, I can tell a big difference between the characters I wrote during my days of high school - when most people I knew were at my church or at my Catholic high school - and the manuscripts I wrote a year later when I had been working as a secretary for a meeting planning company. When I worked in an office, I discovered there were people who I liked a lot, who I loved spending time with, and who believed very different things about the world than I did. Not only was I better for the experience, my stories were too.

Diverse entertainment:
By this I mean experiencing a variety of art, music, books, movies, and TV shows. I especially love going to art galleries where they talk about why something is a great piece of art. I'm not smart when it comes to art, so I love gaining that perspective on the way other people view beauty.

Diverse information and ideas:
I try to get my world news from a variety of sources. I listen to NPR, I watch Fox News, and I also watch The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. It's interesting to me to see how very smart people can disagree about an issue. It's also interesting to me how I'll think I know how I feel about something, but then I hear a news story that opens me up to a different way of thinking. This is a very valuable experience as a writer.

Is there something on this list you've done that has helped you to create original characters? Or is there something you want to try? Or do you have another suggestion to add?

33 comments:

  1. One thing I try to do is put different characters in the same situation and figure out how they act differently. It's easy for me to have them all act like I would, but that makes for cookie cutter characters. Another flaw I've found in my writing is that none of my "good" characters ever sin. They might so things differently, but they don't sin. Giving each character a fatal flaw has helped a lot with that.

    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks for a wonderful post, Stephanie! I appreciate the insights you have.

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    2. I've struggled with that too, Sarah. I'm glad you found a way to fix it!

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  2. Jeff Gerke talked about some of his books at the OYAN conference this year, and one of them caught my eye.
    It's called "Plot Versus Character" and it helps writers make interesting characters and exciting plots.
    One of the techniques Jeff uses is giving your character a personality temperament.
    I don't know if you've ever heard of the 16 temperaments, but if you were to take a personality test on the Internet, you might see that you are personality type INFJ or ESFP.
    These help with making your characters different.
    For example: INFJ means your an Introvert, you have iNtuition, you Feel for people, and you Judge more than you perceive.
    Then, Jeff Gerke explains these into more depth: INFJ: True activist for a worthy cause; good insights into other people; remembers specifics about people who are important to him.
    Overall you can either be
    an Introvert OR an Extrovert
    Sense OR have iNtuition
    Think OR Feel
    Judge OR Perceive
    This helps me a lot with making characters, and I highly recommend reading "Plot Versus Character" by Jeff Gerke.

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    1. By the way, I suggest figuring out what temperament you are before making your characters any of them. Like I'm INFJ, and like it says in the above post, I remember specifics about people who are important to me.
      I've noticed with my friends, (Who probably have a different personality type) that if they tell me a story about them, I'll usually remember them telling me that. Whereas with them, I can tell one story to them over and over and they will never remember that story.
      That's saying something. :)

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    2. The MBTI personality stuff is pretty helpful once you figure it out. At least for me. :) I'm an ENFP ;)

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    3. Samuel, this: "I suggest figuring out what temperament you are before making your characters any of them." was very interesting to me!

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    4. Thanks for the tip.

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  3. One thing that I want to try sometime to keep from writing characters that are almost the same as I am, is to write about the opposite Myer-Briggs type. I'm INTJ, so I would write about a ESFP type.

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    1. That's interesting. I did that accidentally with my current MC--I'm an ENFP and she's an ISTJ :)

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    2. I think Stephanie said that she had a hard time writing novels with a main character that is just like her.
      It's easier to write about someone with a different personality.

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    3. Hey I am an INTJ as well. Myres-Briggs is really helpful! I generally do a voice journal for my characters then go through the personality types and try to figure out what they are. Since I already have their voice I can easily use Myres-Briggs to help be figure out actions and motives.

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    4. Hmm. I sometimes find it easier to write about characters that are like me, but I guess that's different for different people. Miss Lauren, Myer-Briggs is really useful. It's neat that you're an INTJ too.

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    5. I sometimes feel the same way. But you're right, it is different for different people. :)

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    6. Samuel, yes, I have said that! That's how Skylar came about. Of course Ellie, the main character in my new series, is a lot like me. Her life situation is very different, though. And I don't view her as being me, which was what I did as a teen writer, envision the main characters as myself. If that makes sense :)

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  4. Thanks for the post! I know I've had issues with this before and still do sometimes. Good to keep in mind.

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  5. Hey Go Teen Writers! I need help with a teen writer project. E-mail me if you want more information. I need all the teens and writers I can get. My e-mail is sarah(dot)y(dot)faulkner(at)gmail(dot)com.

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    1. It's kind of hard to explain via comment. You can e-mail me for all the information.

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  6. One thing I've tried is making "Obstacle courses" for my characters. It helps me see how each character overcomes obstacles in his or her own way. If they all go about it in the same way, then I know they're too similar.

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    1. That's brilliant, Jonathan! Love that idea.

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  7. I assign very different theme songs to each character, and when I find one's personality drift off I listen to their song.

    But I do have a problem with snippy MCs... And unlike Sara, I have a problem with my characters never wanting to do the right thing. They're all selfish and sarcastic. And they do the right thing only for the wrong reasons >.<

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  8. I was running into that problem recently. Thanks! There was one thing that I tried to do to make new characters fresh which is by observing strangers and friends outside and seeing how they react and making stories based on that. I'll try the other advice that you mentioned =)

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  9. i worry about this all the time! I'll have moments where I think "wouldn't this be cool?!" and I think "nope, did that with your last book, be original!" And will have to have try and brainstorm a totally new character idea. Keeping backstory fresh helps!

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  10. I worry that I'm doing the same character over and over again that I'm writing the same character with a different name. But, whoo, as I am on my journey, I learn my character--and they never seem the same at the end. (phew!) I live in Indonesia--so I see several different religions, the ways different people live, and lots of unusual that must be used in books sometimes. ;) Good post, I really enjoyed reading it! :D

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  11. Awesome post! Thank you for posting! I really needed this post, as I'm often fearful of creating "repeat characters".

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  12. Like a lot of others have commented, I love using Myers-Bring. I'm ENFJ and my current MC is INTJ. I found that rather interesting since most of my friends are INTJ. Recruiting my writer friends to roll play with my characters is a great way to learn about them (though time consuming if you're not careful). I also like using Karen S. Wiesner's "Character Sketch" worksheet for getting started. I'm pretty sure you can get the worksheet off her website. Here's a link the sheet I worked out when starting to figure out my current MC. http://leahegood.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/character-sketch-heather.pdf

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  13. Thanks so much! This is definitely something I've worried about before (and done...unfortunately. such a bad feeling when you review the manuscript and go, "I've read something like this before...")

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  14. I love Character Chatting with my character to get know them better. :)

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  15. I used to go to a hispanic church, and I was able to use it in my latest WIP. While all my characters need lots of work, (especially the FMC, who I'm having to work the residue from my fantasy FMC out of), he fell right into character! It's so fun when things like that happen. :)

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  16. This is a good post. I enjoyed reading it.
    A thought for a possible article: how to avoid characters actually literally SOUNDING like each other. I read things all the time and if I was blind folded in a group of characters, I would never be able to tell which character was saying something. Even peoples' dialogue should be unique in its tone and its word choice. That's something a lot of writers often forget.

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  17. I'm planning on writing a whole slew of books. A couple of series, a couple novels etc. (who knows if that'll actually happen) but I think this is great advice! Especially since all my characters are living in the same multi-verse. So the side characters from one story, are the main characters in another. Thanks for the advice! Hopefully I should get all these books done!

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