I don’t know about you, but if I’m reading a book and can’t tell the characters apart, I am highly likely to put that book down. And if, somehow, the story is good enough to keep me reading, I’m going to be confused half the time and cranky about it. It’s critical to me as a reader that a story have distinct characters. As a writer, I try to keep that in mind, because nobody wants cranky readers.
Consider the Names
One of the easiest ways to create distinct characters on the page is to give them differentiated names. Well, duh, you might say, I’m not going to name them all John. But consider that a lot of names are kind of the same. Single syllable names of similar ethnicity are easy to mix up. Consider the following list:
If I see names like this on the page I know I’m in trouble, especially since two of the names start with J and (as if that isn’t enough) the name George kind of sounds like a J, so in my head, this is a big ‘ol mess. If you possibly can, start your character names with different letters/sounds.
Now consider a handful of names with different lengths, ethnicities and sounds:
This is a much more interesting list.
My favorite way to come up with names is to use the Scrivener Name Generator, but you can always just start by googling “Irish names for boys,” or “Kenyan names for girls.” Just BE CAREFUL. For the love of all that is literary, once you’ve decided on a name, google it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with a great name, only to google it and realize it’s the name of a famous football player, or jazz musician, or psycho killer. The last thing any of us wants is to accidentally name the hero of our story after a psycho killer (unless, you know, you write horror, but then, that feels a little on the nose). So google it. It takes two seconds.
Change Their Appearance
Something I often hear defensive writers say in workshops is that they told us so-in-so was black/asian/latinx/white in the first section. Do they really have to keep telling us? In a word: yes. Of course, you have to be artful about it. You have to find creative ways to remind the reader of what your characters look like.
If they’re tall, maybe a lover has to stand on tip-toe to kiss them goodbye. Maybe they just got a new haircut and they’re checking their look in the mirror so you can remind us they have black hair. If they’re a sloppy dresser, have someone comment. You can also compare them to other characters (“…her skin was darker than mine,” – or – “…her eyes were a lighter blue”).
Keep it up through the whole book, but definitely front load your descriptions. It’s hard to imagine a character if you don’t know what they look like.
Give Them Tics or Habits
Consider the idiosyncratic habits your characters have. Do they get in the car and start driving immediately or do they need five minutes to put the music on, adjust their seat belt, run the heater, etc…? Are they a morning person or a night owl? Do they always tap their foot? Do they click their pen?
This can easily be overused, so be careful with it. Ideally, choose something that another character in the story will notice (to either annoy or endear) so that the tic or habit matters to the story.
Notice Patterns of Speech
Does your character shorten people’s names or use nicknames? Are they loud or soft spoken? Do they tend to trail off mid-sentence? Or do they maybe fill the room with their talking so that no one else can get a word in edgewise.
Pay attention to the people in your life or maybe go sit at a coffee shop for an hour and spy on people. Real people have all kinds of weird ways that they affect their speech and details like this can go a long way when you’re endeavoring to write distinct characters.
Do you have specific ways that you make your characters unique? Help me expand the list here by adding to the comments below.