Being a Better Writer: Keeping Character Variety

Welcome back readers! If you’re seeing this early early early Monday morning, that means that I succeeded in getting it written on Saturday before my work shift … so that I wouldn’t have to worry about not having written it during my Monday and Tuesday work shifts.

One day I’ll move into that 20% of authors that don’t need a second job. Someday …

But for today, we’re back on track with Topic List 11 and chugging right along with a particularly interesting request topic: keeping characters fresh.

Now, granted, this request came with a bit of an explanation, which I’ll give to you now (and is reflected in the title). Our intrepid seeker of knowledge wasn’t asking about keeping a character constantly “fresh” over the course of the story (that’s another topic for another day) or how much tupperware they’d need to keep them from going stale. No, what they were asking after was another kind of freshness: how to keep their new characters from simply being photocopies of prior ones?

Now, if you’re one of those that’s never actually written more than one story, you might be scoffing right about now and wondering “Why is this even a question? Is someone really that bad? Just make a new character!” Well, let me assure you, it’s not that easy.

See, authors develop a style as they write. We all do. Which is why some people will prefer, say, a book by Ian Banks over something written by Sanderson, or Salvatore to Tolkien. It’s not that either of them is written badly, but that each author carries their own style, and it can be really hard to mimic another author’s (especially if you’re still discovering your own). Which is why sometimes when a series is taken over by another author, or a ghost writer, fans can tell: Sometimes the new writer can’t quite capture the “style” of the other. Crud, with some authors, if you’re astute enough, you can sometimes tell who wrote what part of a book during a collaborative project.

Right, authors have styles. And as you write, you’ll develop your own. It’s why we tell young writers to constantly read and expose one’s self to a variety of storytelling styles and approaches: It helps with knowing what to draw from to build the framework of your own style (for instance, some of the biggest influences of my style are Zahn, Sanderson, and Salvatore; can you see how?). But what does this mean with regards to characters?

Well, a lot, actually. See, one of the reasons that we develop a style is that it’s something familiar to us, something that starts to come naturally to us.

And characters? Well … they can be part of that style. They can be something where we create an “archetype” that we’re familiar with that, if we’re not careful, we can slip into over and over again.

Think of it a bit like typecasting. Typecasting is when an actor becomes so well-known for a role, that it’s all they’re ever expected to be in. Harrison Ford, for instance, really grew tired of his roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones because after them, everyone expected him to play that role every time he was on screen.

Well, with characters, we as authors can end up doing something similar. We have a set of characters we’ve written that we’re familiar with: we know how they act, how they behave. And so when we sit down to write something new … if we’re not careful, we can slip back into that familiar character, writing them with a new name and a new face … but still the same old habits, mannerisms, and expressions.

Now, as much as this sounds like a bad thing, it isn’t always. Archetypes, for example, have their place. For instance, readers of my library know that there are characters that fill archetypal roles that tend to be similar in some aspects. Anna Neres and Blade Sunchaser for example. Both are hardened, freelance soldier women with an aptitude for combat and a tendency to flip to “violence is a good first resort” for a lot of their problems (and to be fair, most of their problems tend to be “someone is trying to kill me” so it’s not a bad solution). Jacob Rocke shares some similarities with Salatore Amazd in the upcoming Shadow of an Empire in that both of them are hard-working and quiet individuals.

But … they’re not the same characters. Just similar in ways. In addition, there are plenty of characters that I’ve written that are completely different from anything else I’ve written before, like Alma from Monthly Retreat, who is nothing like characters from my other stories.

Thing is, these are two different things. Making a whole new character from scratch on purpose is different from one that happens to share some similarities while still being fresh. Let’s talk about the latter first, then the former.

So, how do we keep similar characters from becoming the same character? Well, by not letting them be the same character.

That may seem like a terrible answer, but let me expound. What will make your characters different, even fresh, is who they are. And that just doesn’t include how they act … but what made them that way.

Anna and Blade? On the surface, they could be seen as very similar characters. But at their core? They’re fairly distinct from one another. Anna had a horrid home life with an abusive father that she ran away from to became a child soldier. Blade had a relaxed family life that gave her the chance to join her clan’s militia. Anna, consequence of her upbringing, is fiercely protective of the family she does have now, to a degree of paranoia, while Blade, lacking that tumultuous family upbringing, is pretty relaxed about her family to the degree of being out of contact with them for months at a time.

What I’m getting at is that even if characters have similar end points—or perhaps “mid-points” is better for what I’m getting at, which is where the reader steps in—their starting points can be wildly different. Let those “starting points” influence their character, and even if you write two characters that are a similar archetype or fit a particular niche, they’ll still end up feeling like two distinctly different people on their own.

Bear in mind, however, that this means you’ll need to be aware of the details of the character you’re writing, and how those details influence their decisions. Because those details will end up meaning that even  though two characters from two different stories set a similar goal, or act in a similar way, they will do so for very different reasons, and in very different ways. The result then, too, may end up quite different.

Basically, this comes down to knowing your characters and what makes them tick, as well as having that detail and development worked out. Again, archetypes aren’t bad. Someone has to bring the right skillset to the table in a story for things to move forward, after all. But in the context of keeping your character fresh, there are dozens, hundreds even, of reasons why a character might be someone who doesn’t talk often. And there are plenty of ways to show that reasoning in their character and their choices.

I suppose if I were to put this another way, I’d actually use a math analogy. How many different ways can you do an addition problem to get an answer of ten? Well … a lot! You can do two plus eight, six plus four, five plus five, etc etc etc. And that’s using just addition.

Characters that appear similar on the surface but are actually different are a lot like that. What matters as much isn’t the answer they start at (ten), but how they got there. One character may be nine plus one, while another is three plus seven. Both arrive at a similar answer … but both via different means. And if you extrapolate forward using the “how they got there” as a guide, one could become eleven or nineteen, while the other would be thirteen or seventeen.

So, it’s how they got there. And once you’re comfy with that, stretch a bit more if you’d like and make it nine plus two to bring a little more variance. Now, let’s talk about that other approach. The “former” mentioned above. Building a character from scratch with a design in mind.

The reason I’m bringing this up separately is that it’s an approach that generally calls for a specific story to be written for it, and a specific mindset going in. This approach, as I would call it, is the “challenge” approach. So-called because the goal is to go completely out of your comfort-zone from the start by asking “What’s a character archetype that I’ve never written before?” and then challenging one’s self to sit down and write it.

Yeah, challenging. Especially if it’s something well-outside your comfort zone. And risky too, as it may end in failure. On the other hand, it can inspire something new and fresh you’ve never tried before. For example, a good number of my stories in Unusual Events were challenge stories, stories that came from me saying “I’ve never written this before, but I’d like to give it a shot.” Monthly Retreat, for example, or SUPER MODEL, both came from me challenging myself to do something I’d not done before.

Granted, this approach can crash and burn. I’ve had stories that set themselves aflame as I set out to do something I couldn’t quite achieve yet. But even then … I don’t really count them as a failure because they were supposed to push me to try something I wasn’t familiar with, to write a character I didn’t know how to approach. Then, once I’d seen where I’d had trouble, I was able to pay more attention to what other writers did that had worked and look back at my own weak areas to figure out how to shore them up.

Again, all of what was said earlier still applies: Background, etc. But this is an approach where you set yourself up with the goal of “I’m going to write a character that’s trying to be good at a sport” or “I’m going to write a character that’s a parent!” when you’ve not tried those things before.

Yes, you may fail a few times. Some you might even publish or show off, something that isn’t perfect, but isn’t a bust either. But it’ll help your mind stretch to new areas and approaches to character.

Right, that about sums it up. Normally I’d recap, but … I’m short on time. Just remember: Everyone has their own style, and that’s not bad. But if you’re worried that this has led you to slip into a rut with regard to characters, think about what made them who they are and how that will drive their decisions going forward. Develop them with their own choices and backgrounds.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Keeping Character Variety

  1. Thanks for clearing this up. I sometimes come up with a character I think is original, and then it turns out I’m just copying them from somewhere, so this really helps (even though I haven’t actually finished a story yet).


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