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Characters with Distinct Personalities

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by La Volpe, Jan 22, 2017.

  1. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    I've been having this problem for quite a long time. I'll start with a character and either
    a) give him/her goals and things and give no thought to personality
    or more recently
    b) figure out what kind of personality he/she has (in addition to the other things).

    But, regardless of what I'm do, by page 50, I end up with a cast of which everyone is essentially a forgettable brown-haired everyman. Basically, I could pretty much swap the characters' goals around without really having to change anything they're saying. I.e. all my characters would say the same kinds of things (roughly) if they had the same goals. So it's like I'm using goals to make a mock-up of a personality or something.

    I even tried to combat this by vastly exaggerating one personality aspect in the design phase, like say, paranoia, so that I'd end up with a mildly paranoid guy by page 50 (and then go back with revision to tone down the first bit). But the moment I'm not constantly reminding myself to make this character act this way, he/she just melts down into a shapeless jello-being.

    So. Am I the only one with this problem? If not, how do you handle this? Any tips or tricks or little exercises I can try? I know some people do interviews or write passages in first person. I've tried this (though not very diligently) but it doesn't seem to translate to my writing once I get really into a scene.

    Suggest away!
    spectre likes this.
  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Give them attitudes.

    A lot of people might only think of one type of attitude: "He has such an attitude!" But an attitude is much more than that. It's an orientation, how a person orients with his surroundings and his habitual way of interacting with his surroundings based on his orientations. And most people have only one attitude or a dominant attitude if they occasionally orient differently in particular situations.

    So yeah, we sometimes put too much weight in the idea of using a goal to establish personality. Three people can have very similar goals but have three completely different attitudes and thus personalities.

    I've found that when I can place myself in a character's shoes and orient the way he'd orient toward any given stimulus, I have a much easier time writing him with a distinctive personality.
    spectre likes this.
  3. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    A simple way to get started is to give each of your characters a different main trait- funny, smart, confident, adventurous, etc. Whenever they are in a new situation have the first thing they do or say something reinforce that trait. In stressful situations have their first response be in line with their main trait.
    FifthView likes this.
  4. Christopher Michael

    Christopher Michael Troubadour

    I'm a multi-pass writer, so it's a little bit different for me. I tend to run my first pass through a chapter/act/story making sure I get all the major action or informational beats in. My second run tends to focus on the connective tissue- connection previous chapters and setting up more. The third pass is when I focus on the characters.
    The other passes are usually much easier. I can run them over the entire story. I have to run this third pass scene by scene. The first thing I do is make note of which characters are, or should be, in this scene. Then I open my character notes and go line by line, inserting observations, mannerisms, actions, and dialogue, that fits the personality of the character. It takes much longer than other ways of doing it, but it's what works for me.
  5. I've never had this problem. My characters are, if anything, TOO lively and independent. It's weird because it doesn't even feel like I create characters. Half the time I swear they create themselves. This one guy just popped into my head without any precedence and as I started to develop him he became a huge, lively persona. Sometimes his dialogue just starts writing itself in my head. At random times.

    Characters are my favorite part of writing. That said, I've been accustomed to thinking of my characters as real people inhabiting my headspace for so long that I don't even know how to help you. But I can try.

    My favorite thing to do: Give them quirks. People in real life are weird. Really weird. I have never met a person who's normal. I know of someone with a phobia of glitter. I wrote that down because it's going in a story someday. People have weird hobbies you would never expect of them and tics and odd irrational fears. Probably half of my characters have a diagnosable mental disorder, so there's that. Why not? People in real life do things like be allergic to bananas or like licorice-flavor jellybeans (Euuugghhh!). Some people hate being wrong and can't walk away from an argument. Some people pronounce a certain word wrong all the time. Some people love pugs. Like, reeeeeeally love pugs. Some people try to act tough but have a really low pain threshold. Some people are terrified of rabbits. Some people are extremely ticklish. Trust me. People are strange. And making characters strange is fun.

    Also, appearance is a lot more than just hair and eye color. I end up taking into account height and weight and build and hair style and every aspect of their appearance. I know many of my characters' heights to the inch. Not because I really make an effort to come up with these things, just because I get curious about it. People have quirks in their appearance too: ears that stick out awkwardly, crooked noses, eyebrows so thin it looks like they don't have them, really bad acne (that's me! haha...). I gave one of my characters weirdly tiny feet. He acts like it doesn't bother him, but gets snappy when you bring it up. :p There's no such thing as average looking.

    Or, you can give them traits that make them fun to write about. Maybe an extremely sarcastic attitude, or a tendency to make bad impulse decisions. If you really enjoy writing them, sometimes they come easier.

    What you're working toward, though, is really making your characters ALIVE. I...have no idea how to explain this, but I feel like there's a point at which your character is a character, a person, and not just a bunch of traits stitched together. I know because occasionally I'll come across a character that is NOT alive, and struggle to write them because they won't form themselves clearly. I feel like I'm pushing a pawn around a chessboard when I write with them. I don't know what the distinction is but I know that sometimes no matter how much you try to develop a character they won't acquire, for lack of a better word, a "soul."

    It seems to me like your characters aren't alive, and that's what's making it hard. Especially the part about you constantly having to remind yourself of your characters' traits makes me think that. They aren't, as mine are, restless and anxious to be written. They don't want to beat their own path across the page. And I don't know the cause of that, only that I don't run into it often.

    Btw, I don't so much do interviews as write conversations between me and my characters. I imagine them sitting across from me and write down everything. Mannerisms, etc...They don't always even answer my questions. That works too.

    I have to leave, but I'll do some more thinking on this. ;) We'll figure it out. I have some ideas, but I need to think on them.
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    My guess is it's something you should handle in edit, going through characters and pulling out the desired traits to make them unique. Doing this, you will probably begin to teach your subconscious to take over... or it might be something to be handled in edit forever, but you will do less and less of it as you go. Screenwriting is good practice for this where it's easy to sort characters.

    I am going to go through every single line of dialogue for every major speaking part before I send out to an agent, after sorting all dialogue so I can read every line the characters have together, to make sure they fit the speech patterns and attitudes I want. This might be obsessive, a hangover from screenwriting where it was easy, but it's one of those things that my finicky brain wants to catch, because even little changes can make me say "oh yeah! I should add this!"
  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    So...One thing you can do pre-writing is take your characters and put them in an identical situation and see how they react to it. This is basically what you are doing anyway when writing your story, but sometimes in the story the characters are separated, involved in their own arcs, or coming into the situation at a later time or with different immediate concerns. (On that last point, I mean that Character X might have been fighting for five minutes with many ups and downs in the fight when Character Y shows up having just had a lovely interlude with a love interest.) So, put them together and give them a common situation to see how they orient toward it and how this orientation manifests in action/dialogue/stance.

    Let's say we have three friends who are women in their early twenties. They are hanging out together in an apartment loft trying to decide what to do for the upcoming weekend when one sees an ad in a magazine about some sort of special resort with special activities and the promise of lots of new experiences. She points it out to her friends:

    "Hey! Look at this! Oh my god we have to do this!" She's the adventurous, outgoing, excitable type. [Friend #1]

    One friend responds, "Uh I don't know...It looks kind of wild."

    When pressed, she gives an excuse. "I don't think I'd like line dancing very much and it's a long trip. Look at the clothes those people are wearing...It's weird! Let's find something to do in town. Want to go to Renaldo's for dinner and catch a movie instead?" She's the person who grows uncomfortable in new situations, hesitant to try new things, and consequently defaults to routine. She'll often make excuses for not engaging in activities unfamiliar to her or for not putting herself into a strange situation. [Friend #2]

    The third friend looks over the ad and starts doing a cost-benefit analysis, figuring how much the trip will cost, whether there'll be enough going on at the resort to keep them entertained for a full weekend, whether [Friend #2] might be right that the drive would be too long and they'll have lost too much free time from their weekend if they go, whether this might be a good way to find [Friend #2] a boyfriend finally....Basically, she's analytical and thinks 2nd-order, 3rd-order effects are worth considering before any decision is made. She also deals in details rather than abstractions and vague considerations, when possible, so she frequently fails to consider her own personal desires about any given potential situation or treats them as being secondary to other considerations. When she does contemplate her own irrational desires and personal feelings, she tends to do so analytically as if these things can be resolved only when they are thoroughly understood. [Friend #3]


    Ok, so let's imagine these three friends in a different situation. They are already in a strange city, driving around, and they are growing hungry. For whatever reason, they've lost their cell phones and printed guides, so they can't seek out a specific eatery.

    Probably, Friend #1's exuberance and refusal to take Friend #2's excuses, combined with Friend #3's failure to find any downside and ability to find potential upsides led to Friend #2's being in this situation in the first place.

    They happen to see a Japanese restaurant and, as usual #1 says Let's go and #3 says they might as well because it's getting late and nothing else is around, and #2 is not driving, it's not her car, and she's already in a strange situation and has no options to offer that would get her out of this mess anyway.

    After they are handed their menus.....

    "Whoa, I've never had octopus before!" #1 goes for the new, excited by the prospect. She also orders saké.

    #2 is relieved the restaurant also has a small American food sub menu, so she orders a cheeseburger with fries and a diet coke. After the meal, she might complain about her food; if a Japanese restaurant is going to offer American food, they should at least try to make it good rather than slop it together for those who prefer eating American.

    #3 worries about the cost and portion sizes of each item on the menu and may even factor in whatever articles she's read about the nutrition of these different dishes or ingredients—and even the danger: "I can't believe they offer blowfish sushi! I wonder if this chef is an expert in preparing it..." She ends up ordering a sensible meal, which may include offsetting the cost of #1's choice.


    Let's suppose these three are involved in some fantasy adventure, a heist-for-hire scenario. (#2 may complain a lot, but she's been going on these heists for years, so it's not totally new. The devil's in the details, however...) The person who has sent them a message about a potential hire says he'll meet them at their favorite local hangout, a tavern called The Maid's Breath, the next day.

    He shows up with a huge sum of up-front money and promises of even more later. It's a simple lockbox grab from a caravan leaving the city tomorrow for the capital city about 100 miles away. There won't be a lot of guards, but it's imperative they get in, get the lockbox, and get out with no one the wiser, at least until they have some time to get far enough away. The client doesn't want this theft traced back to him. This is all old-hat for them and satisfies #2's and #3's concerns, and #1 is gung-ho as usual; she wants to try out a new disguise anyway, and this situation is perfect for it.

    Then their client makes a motion, and a very attractive, brawny man walks over to the table. The client says there's another condition. This man, who is the client's accountant (or medieval equivalent heh) must go with them—and lead the heist. They've never let a stranger join them on their missions before, much less let one call the shots. How will they react?


    So basically, characters will have dominant attitudes about things and these will influence almost all their actions along the way, although the influence can be strong or weak depending on the relevance of the situation to their attitudes.


    The trick is to use devices to convey these attitudes consistently.

    There's no bad thing in defaulting to these personality quirks at every possible juncture. You will not want to go overboard in making these characters mere caricatures, but I've found (and I think it's been mentioned plenty of times in various threads) that sticking with a few key traits, accentuating them, even exaggerating them at times, is a good strategy. So find/create both strong and weak stimuli and situations, strong and weak reactions in keeping with these quirks.

    Avoid "reacting" to stimuli in universal ways. I mean, when some passerby on the street kicks a helpless dog, the universal reaction might be disgust and/or anger and condemnation. If you default to universal reactions, your characters will begin to sound all alike. They are basically you or the single faceless Everyman. Instead, #1 might say, "I'm going to kick that man's backside!"; #2 might say they're new to town and shouldn't cause a ruckus and look, the man's walked on, the dog's okay and looks pretty mean besides; #3 might repeat #2's comments and mention the fact that they are late for their meeting and there's a lot of gold at stake, but if #1 feels the need to punish the man maybe #2 and #3 can go ahead to the meeting....

    You can use various speech/dialogue tics to help show these personality traits:

    #1 might often speak in a rush, with shorter sentences, and have much of what she says allude to her own personal feelings/desires. She may often cut off what the others (or anyone) is saying, mid-sentence.

    #2 might often use hesitant speech and abstract considerations, vague terminology, and go off on a ridiculous tangent. Ellipses might appear more often in her speech. She may often hold back, remain silent, when she's sensing she's been beaten in an argument, especially when the other two have already made up their minds. (So giving visual cues of her internal reactions might be even more important than it would be for the others.)

    #3 might speak in carefully constructed sentences that are to the point, balanced arguments, and may tend to drone on and on if there are many details to consider.

    I suppose there are a host of other methods for keeping the traits in the mind of the reader....But I myself have droned on and on already here, heh.
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2017
    Heliotrope likes this.
  8. spectre

    spectre Sage

    I picture my characters on the big screen. If I can't hear and see them most of the time (during introductions and decisions especially) then they are too flat. Perhaps a good idea is to make sure they are responding to certain things. Aaron notices a man's shifty movements in the tavern and rather than alert his friends, he follows him and ambushes him. Sarah mourns the death of her mount in battle. These types of reactions which are not always major story points are important for character development.

    Sent from my SM-G550T1 using Tapatalk
  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    For me it's not just about giving characters goals. It's about giving/finding them personal reasons for wanting those goals and understanding what they have done or are willing to do to achieve those goals that helps me distinguish my characters. Also add to this how this past affects how they each view and react to the world around them.

    For example a person who grew up well fed will react differently to wasting food to someone who grew up on the edge of starvation. The two characters may have the same goals, say owning the largest supermarket chain in the world, but the reasons for wanting them may be different.
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  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    All good advice here, so I'll ask a question instead.

    How do you know they're all the same? Have you had beta readers? Do they make this complaint? Make sure you are fixing a real problem, first, because there is another possibility--namely, that you are bored with them.

    For myself, I have to care about my characters. I need to find them interesting or amusing or repellent or *something* or else they do indeed wind up shallow. They wind up serving the plot rather than serving the story. But before you decide anything, you really need to get some objective feedback.
  11. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    Thanks for all the responses.

    Firstly, that was a very thorough and helpful post, thanks. Your suggestion about putting all the characters in the same mock-up situation and exploring their reactions that way is probably a good start. I think I often have the problem of downplaying (maybe even subconsciously sometimes) the traits because I'm worried that they'll become caricatures, as you mentioned.

    So the question becomes, how much is too much? I'm guessing there won't be a solid answer for that, as it will likely vary between people and characters. But your "There's no bad thing in defaulting to these personality quirks at every possible juncture" confirms my suspicion that I should probably spend more time showing the traits.

    I think another part of my problem comes with the application of these traits. I.e. I tend to forget to add in the traits, or I leave it out for the sake of the plot. Thus, the plot is driving my characters' decisions instead of the other way around.

    Thanks. This seems like a good trick to cement the traits in my own head. I.e. when the character gets into a new situation, I specifically reinforce that trait, and hopefully that'll help me keep that tone for the character throughout the scene.

    This is what I've always thought -- that reinforcing character traits can be done in revision. But won't that make you run into problems? For instance, if I can use Fifth's example with the man kicking the dog, #1's personality directly affects what she does.

    So let's say that the man kicking the dog is the villain. If only #1 sees this happen, she'll go after the guy and confront him, which could lead to him being revealed as the villain or whatever. But if only #2 sees this happen, she won't do anything, and the confrontation won't have happened. This can change a large part of your story.

    No, I haven't gotten the complaint from readers. It's just something I picked up on by myself. I pretty sure that it's an issue, but maybe I'm too close to it. What exactly do you mean by "bored with them"? As in, I don't find them to be interesting characters?

    I've heard this from a lot of people, but I've never had this experience. Everything about character creation and writing is a mechanical process for me. I.e. I am always in full control, as it were.

    Funny you should say that, because with my current project, my attempt at fixing this (I haven't started writing yet, so I don't know if it will work) is giving each character a "Weird thing" (verbatim as it is labelled in my notes). One characteristic that makes them different from forgettable brown-haired everymen.
  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    As you say, you tend to forget these traits. I don't think that what you're looking for is plot changing/ big picture character traits, but more of the subtle differences that makes your characters distinct. You don't need to go crazy hammering home character traits to make them feel distinct, IMO. Of course I am interpreting an issue, not actually seeing it.
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    As the author, you have a lot of control in how the plot plays out.

    So let's imagine that scenario, but not let #1 run wild. Perhaps she's persuaded by #3's arguments and doesn't go after the man but goes ahead to the meeting because, after all, she's excited by the prospect of a new job, also, and after her initial reaction to the man has passed she lets it go. Having that conversation happen anyway is an opportunity to reinforce these personality traits.

    Or, let's imagine that she does go off after the man and #2 and #3 go on to the meeting. Maybe that man's just a man, no one special, and the plot-significant events happen at the meeting with #2 and #3. Later when they're together again, #2 and #3 fill #1 in on the significant developments that have happened. (If this is done in revision, maybe instead of having all three at the meeting, as you originally had, only two of them are and the third is off-screen. But the ultimate result to the plot is basically the same.)

    Or, suppose #1's convinced not to go after the man. When the three arrive at the meeting, it just so turns out that their new client is that man! Or the attractive, brawny man the client wants to lead their heist is that man. But then again, maybe neither of those are true. Instead, a few chapters later when they are starting to realize the heist is not just a simple heist and discover that there's a villain at work, maybe that's when they realize they'd seen the villain before–kicking the dog!

    So....you have options.

    I think that if you are going to tackle their personality quirks in revision, you can perhaps leave a lot of your plot development the same but simply rewrite some parts to reinforce personalities. So that meeting at The Maid's Breath tavern....Maybe when you revise, their dialogue changes, or one walks over to the bar, in disgust and frustration (maybe #2) and has a drink where she didn't before...and so forth. Their attitudes need not alter their ultimate decisions greatly but can rather somewhat change how they come to those decisions. Of course, changing the way the plot plays out may also be an option if you discover through the process that there's a more interesting way of going about it.
  14. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    I'm the same way. I have to picture them in 3D first. Which is probably why cinema has had a much bigger impact on my writing than literature has.
  15. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    So another way to put it...as author, you have the power to decide whether that man is the villain, whether #1 or #2 sees him, whether that scene is even included in the book, and the extenuating circumstances that might be present influencing #1's or #2's reaction. Part of the revision process is deciding which route to take.

    In video games, there's a common design in some games of allowing a player to control one party member and setting other party members to "aggressive," "defensive," or "balanced," and maybe even setting go-to actions for those other party members. During a fight, those characters will always act the same. But characters in books are different, more complex. Their personality traits may color their thought process and influence their decision making processes, influence their dialogue and moment-to-moment activities, but not necessarily have such a predictable through-line to major actions influencing the overall direction of the plot.

    That said, I think that having a fit match between characters and plot development is a good thing. Characters suddenly acting out of character can be horrible for the story. Characters who are merely caricatures are usually bad for the story (although sometimes this doesn't apply to background characters or side characters.) If a character would naturally commit some action that would have major effects on the plot development, that might be a necessary alteration to the story as told. (I mean, during revisions.) I usually try to have a very good feel for characters before writing the story, so I try to cross those hurdles as they come.
  16. If your methods for creating and developing characters are totally different than mine, I might not be able to help very much. :(

    But, I've found that "personality" is a really unhelpful concept. Its really vague. What is my personality, and what defines it? Is it the things I say, the emotions I have, the way I react to situations? Would it be ever entirely accurate to say that I'm extroverted rather than introverted, or temperamental rather than eventempered, or loyal rather than flighty? Are any of these things facts about me, or just things that get brought out in certain situations?

    I gave up on figuring out "personality traits" a long time ago. It might help more to, for lack of a better term, observe how your character behaves. Maybe write things where you put them in different situations, and figure out how they react differently to those situations than another character.

    I'd also suggest trying to picture your characters really clearly. Figure out the details of how they look and dress and move, not just hair color but every quirk of their appearance. Think about their height and build. Do image searches on the kinds of traits you think your characters might have and the kinds of clothes they might wear. Sometimes having a very clear image helps me.

    When I get home I'll track down my interview sheet. It has some questions that have helped me. It's helpful because it's not just writing down traits; it forces you to really think about how your character would answer.
  17. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

    Sometimes, I use people I actually know in real life as templates for characters. The characters are not actually them, of course, they are just a starting point, but I can ask how such-and-such a person would act, I can incorporate their personality quirks, and so on. I do wonder if they recognize themselves! (fortunately the ex-girlfriends don't read my stuff...I hope)

    Also, I have used historic persons in the same way. Again, just as a place to start, a basis for building a character that will increasingly veer into becoming his or her own person as the story develops.
  18. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    Like some others here, for my WIP, my debut novel, I wanted a visual of my characters. I went through a casting exercise, choosing the celebrities that my characters seem most like. I found images of these celebrities online and put those images in the corresponding character sheets in Scrivener. I created 3D renders of some of my characters. When I write any passage about a character, I first make sure I have that character's image in my head, looking at the images I have on file if necessary. I picture my chosen celebrity for that character, acting out the scene I'm writing. It gets a little tricky with the twins. :) They look the same, but they are so different inside. Visualization can't be the only tool I use when it comes to writing them.

    Some of my characters started out filling a particular stereotype and were nothing more than caricatures. I didn't know initially who they really were, just that they had a part to play. So I gave them personalities after the fact to fit the story. The twins were like this. One twin leans more to being amoral and the other is highly moral, but they still get along and care deeply about each other. I didn't know this about them when I started writing the story outline. I didn't know this until about the third draft. They were definitely stereotypical hot babe twins in the beginning. They have evolved into individuals. And some of the plot now evolves around them and their personalities more than it did in the outline.

    For some characters, I had a good idea about their personalities to begin with, and some plot was initially based on their character traits. Some of this early plotting may have survived revision. :) The homeless teenage girl and the suicidal married man are two characters with personalities known in the beginning that haven't changed too drastically over several revisions, even though their roles have changed somewhat.

    So it can go either way. I've done a ton of revising. But this is to be my first published novel, and I want everything to feel right before I submit to agents. I'm hoping I'll learn from this first book and won't need to revise as much for future ones.

    I do feel your pain. I doubt any two writers end up using all the same approaches to writing. Keep at it and you're bound to find what works for you.
    TheCatholicCrow likes this.
  19. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    Good points.

    Yeah, that's what I'm trying to do. To get a better feel for my characters so that I don't end up with them being strung along by the plot all puppet-like.

    But for me, "personality traits" is just a term to describe exactly that: how a character behaves. It generally helps me to have a word or a couple of words to recenter myself on that character's traits.

    Also, what put me on this track was something I read or heard, similar to what you just mentioned: that you need to figure out what your character does that is different from what most people do, etc.

    I find that I can reasonably predict (or guess at) what people I know would do in certain situations. I can kind of "play it out" in my head. Works for fictional characters that I know well too. So this is probably a good tip, but I don't think I necessarily know the right kind of people that I need for each specific slot in my stories.

    I sometimes (rarely) find that I gradually change characters over the course of a story, and then find them different at the end. While this seems like good character growth, this usually happens as a formless blob > character. I.e. the traits I find at the end should probably have been there from the beginning.
  20. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I had a moment of understanding today as I was out walking. I've always thought of "character development" as the character's personality changing and how they develop from one type of character into another. Today it struck me that perhaps character development refers to exploring the character's personality so that the reader gets to know them better.

    I'm guessing it can be both, or a little bit of each, but the second interpretation didn't occur to me until just today. :p
    FifthView likes this.

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