Monday, January 16, 2017

How To Write Characters Who Are Different From Each Other

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.

My first few complete manuscripts featured me as the main character. 

Not that I realized it at the time, but it's pretty easy to see now. Me ... if I had pursued writing for TV. Me ... if I had been from Connecticut. Me ... if I had red hair. And I surrounded my Me character with characters who agreed with me. Or if they didn't, it's because they were terrible people who just didn't "get it."

I think this is a very common starting place for writers. Especially if you begin writing in your teens, like I did. I was still figuring out who I wanted to be, and writing helped me dream.

But eventually you get to a place where you realize all your characters are sounding the same. How can you fix that when you've never been anybody but yourself?

Work to develop empathy in your real life.

Just last week, I was telling a friend how I failed my kids by dropping the ball on a few of their school things. While encouraging me, my friend shared how when she was an elementary school teacher, she used to be very judgmental of the parents who didn't do what she asked. Then she laughed and said, "Now I have a kid in school, and I'm the parent who forgets the show-and-tell item and doesn't fill the estimation jar."

Now, because of her life experiences, she has empathy for others.

When you practice empathy for others in your life, it will translate to writing better characters. When friends are sharing with you, or the news is on, or you're exposed to an opinion different than your own, try to put yourself in their shoes. What's their story? Why might they feel the way they do?

Or if you don't know them, create your own story. What kind of life experience might lead them down this path? What kind of home life? What kind of social barriers?

For the most part, a person's choices or feelings make sense to them. That doesn't mean they are in a healthy place when making those choices or feeling those feelings, just that it is logical to them.There's great valuefor writing and livingto practicing empathy instead of leaping into judgment.

Expose yourself to different cultures and ways of thinking.

We live in an amazing era of being able to share from our own worldview.

If you want to write a character who has skin that's a different color than your own, who grew up in a different era than you, or who has different social, political, or religious beliefs than yours, with a few clicks you can find blogs, books, and articles written by people in those situations. 

Likely this will mean having our own worldview poked, prodded, and maybe even broken in places. But we shouldn't fear that.

Reflect on why you are who you are.

We are all dealt certain cards in life. What are the things in your life that you had no control over but have shaped you? Here are some ideas to get you started:
  • Birth order: Are you an only child? The oldest of two? The seventh of nine? A twin? Adopted?
  • Your parents: Divorced? Happily married? Married, but not happily? Out of the picture completely?
  • Location: Where were you born and raised? What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in? What kind of people are/were in your community?
  • Money: Was there money for extras like piano lessons and ordering pizza? Could you sense financial strain in the family? 
You can dig into religion, or your parents' strategies and thoughts about raising children, or tragedies that happened. I bet you can come up with a lot!

And depending on how old you are, there are likely things you've chosen that have shaped you and had lingering effects. Choices about how to express yourself, what to do with your body, how to spend your money, how to prioritize your time, and so forth. 

When you've thought through all the ways your life has been influenced, it makes it easier to... 

Use this knowledge to give characters diverse backstories.

Don't freak out, but I'm going to suggest you make a spreadsheet. Just real quick. Just to prove a point. I promise there won't be any math, okay?

Put a character name at the top of each column, and then for each row, assign a component of their backstory. You can use the bulleted list above as a starting place. This is just for you, it doesn't have to be perfect.

I talk about this in my Story Workbook Tutorial, but as you start to fill this out, it's going to become very obvious to you if many of your characters have similar family circumstances, skin colors, religions, etc.

This is going to give you a great overview of your cast, and you can easily identify why so many of your characters are sounding the same.

Spend some time writing about that character in their own voice.

But these will all just feel like labels ("the Jewish character" or "the adopted character") if you don't spend time in that character's head. 

James Scott Bell calls these character journals, where you free-write as that character in first person. It's not stuff that's going to necessarily be in the story. You're just digging in and getting a feel for them and their history so that you can write them in a more distinct way. All it takes is asking them a question, and then seeing where the free-write takes you. 

Now that you have a bit of information about your character, you can even pick something from your list and explore that. For example, if you have a character who excels at sports, yet is being raised by two very bookish professors, you could start with the question, "What has it been like to have a passion for something that your parents don't value?"

And then you're going to write in an "I" voice. As in, "I was nine when my parents finally said it would be okay for me to play on a baseball team." From there, just have fun with it and see where it leads!

I hope this has been helpful!

What's something about your main character that is different than you?


  1. Thanks! I'm working on relaxing and saying, "Okay. My characters don't have to have the same personality."
    This post will help a LOT.

  2. Love this, Stephanie! Creating characters has always been probably my favorite aspect of writing. (Which isn't surprising, seeing that it was my favorite part of playing Barbies when I was a kid, too.) ;) The character journal that James Scott Bell recommends always helps me tap into my characters' history far more than character charts. I love the way their voice rises to the surface during the process, too.

    Thanks for sharing these tips!


    1. It's my favorite too, Tessa!

      And I agree. I've discovered more interesting things about side characters from doing the journals. And they're way more fun than filling out charts!

  3. Thanks for this article, Stephanie! I have definitely been guilty of creating a bunch of me-characters before. I particularly struggle with creating characters whose morality differs from my own. But that's how life is. I have to work hard at letting my characters be what they're supposed to be. For my current WIP, I'm writing characters who come from different backgrounds from each other, and I'm trying hard to stay true to that.

    1. The morality issue is a struggle for many writers, I think. I've found it's become easier as I get older and have a more diverse group of friends. It sounds like you're doing a great job of being intentional!

  4. This was a great article and extremely relevant to me. A while back I got into an argument with a person who accused me of not being a "mature writer" because I hold a certain worldview. She didn't seem to understand that my characters are not me, and I am not my characters. Especially since, in regards to my current WIP, all but one of my main characters are criminals.
    And I've tried character journals before but they've never worked for me as I write them before I get very far in the draft and my characters become completely different people who render the previous writing inaccurate. Now I've taken to plotting my story, but pantsing my characters.
    And has anyone tried making music playlists to get in the characters heads? I'm doing it now with seven songs per character and it actually works pretty well if music "speaks" to you.

    1. Christian, I frequently write character journals after the first draft. Sometimes I pause during the first draft to do so, if I feel like my lack-of-understanding is damaging the plot, but it's hard for me to do character journals before I've written most of the first draft.

      I bet music would work really well for some writers. I usually can't handle having anything on while I write!

    2. I love using music for characters, especially for working out backstories because the music just gets infused into the characters.

  5. He is a boy! He is also outspoken, while I'd rather not speak up.

    1. I love writing bold, outspoken characters! For that exact reason. I would rather fold myself up into a corner :)

  6. Had the same problem. My two main characters were "good me" and "bad me." I once tried character journals, but they didn't really work for me until I came up with an altered version: character *interviews*. I inserted myself, as myself, into the story world and met my characters in places like coffee shops. Talking to them like I would conduct an interview for journalism class made them feel more real, and therefore, more diverse.

    1. I'm glad you found something that worked so well for you, Jenneth!

    2. I've done this, too! And I found it really helpful. I need to get back into it, actually. :D

  7. I tend to write lots of male characters, so they are all quite different from me in that regard. However, it's more of a challenge to make my female leads individual enough and to make energetic, talkative lead characters, since I am quiet and pensive in nature. I think that's the most prominent piece of my personality that infuses itself in my characters. Thank you for addressing this topic, Mrs. Morrill!

  8. Free writing interviews was a big help to me for one of my stories the other year (it was actually a lot of fun!), but this is a good reminder to do it again for my current story.
    As far as something that is different from me, my main character doesn't like thinking about the future.
    Thank you for sharing all these ideas!!

  9. These are definitely some helpful tips on how to develop unique characters. Figuring out my character's personalities through backstory is one of my favorites because it forces you to create a context for the character which can just open so many doors.

  10. This really helped me a lot. A lot of my characters have the same personality and I need to change that. Thanks for always blogging great tips. I would love to read more of these having to do with character development, and creating characters. <3