Have you ever began writing multiple characters, then struggled to give your characters their own unique voices? Have you ever written dialog and thought, Oh no, those two characters sound too much alike?
I struggled with this quite a bit when writing the first four books in my "STARLING Series." The story is about four teenagers at a public high school who hack the tightly-controlled future SUPERNET in the year 2045.
For me, it was a long process to clearly know and feel ALL the differences between Simon Laramie, Jaya Ceyes, Flower Wildwind and Peter Arnold, to understand what makes each teenager a unique human being. It was even more challenging to continually show those differences in every interaction and every bit of action and dialog throughout the first four books.
I hope I learned a little bit from that process. Of course, I'm still learning and have a long way to go. But I'd like to offer five tips that I found helpful and that you might find helpful too. I hope these ideas can help to expand your characters and fully give each of your characters his/her own life.
1. DON'T JUST "KNOW" YOUR CHARACTERS. LOVE YOUR CHARACTERS.
Just like real life, it's important to step outside your "self," and the people around you in order to love yourself and the people around you unconditionally.
Practice doing this with yourself next time you're alone in a room of your house. Imagine you're floating above the room observing yourself quietly with no thoughts or judgment about yourself. Your mind is clear. The only thing you are doing is watching. From this vantage, you can see new angles.
This kind of practice is helpful to anyone with real life. It also helps you as a writer to be more objective, to accept and to know on a deeper level what you're writing about and who your characters really are.
You must have a deep love for your characters to the point they ARE REAL to you. When you close your eyes, you see them as if they are alive, as if they're real people, as if you've known them your whole life. You can hear their voices. Eventually you get to the point where you "see" your characters and "hear" their voices, even when your eyes aren't closed. They're always with you just like everyone you've ever known.
Sure, some of this comes through the long process of writing and re-writing, and thinking, and re-writing; and, re-writing more.
But it's not writing alone that gets you there. It's how far and how deep you choose to go into the world of your characters. There may be a number of things you know about your characters that may not make it into the book, but you still know these details.
Fully knowing the world of your book and how it affects your characters and their decisions is critical. When you know every detail of their environment, including how the air smells, what happened to them when they were children, specific incidents that only your characters know about and more, then you begin to feel what they're feeling.
2. REMEMBER THE POINT OF VIEWS AMONG YOUR CHARACTERS, NOT ONLY THE POINT OF VIEW OF THE NARRATION
If you have a novel in which multiple characters have important roles showing the story, then keep in mind you're juggling multiple points of view that will combine to create an overarching point of view that is the story.
You, as the writer, may feel like you know exactly what's happening, but remember each character actually only sees what is happening to him/her.
Each character has his/her own unique, personal perception of the other characters in the story and what they're doing.
Try to imagine how Character A perceives Character B and vice versa; not what you, the writer, believes is actually happening. Or put another way, try to BE the characters you're writing about. Don't be a writer when you're writing. Pretend you're an actor and that you have to be your characters.
3. RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN CHARACTERS ARE CRITICAL
In the first four books of "The STARLING Series," the story is told in the first person point of view of Simon Laramie.
Simon's 15, the youngest of the four teenage hackers. He's a freshman at Briarwood Public High School.
The other three teenagers are all seniors, ranging in age from 17-18.
Because he's younger, Simon has a unique point of view in relation to the other characters.
But it's not just about Simon's point of view. It's also about his relationship with Jaya Ceyes, Flower Wildwind and Peter Arnold.
A disturbing incident at the beginning of the series sets the stage for the bond between Simon and Jaya. In many ways, Jaya acts not only as a friend, but as an older sister with Simon.
Simon's relationships with Peter Arnold and Flower Wildwind are slightly different. Although Peter doesn't go out of his way for Simon the way Jaya does, Simon still admires Pete's intellect and looks up to Pete as an older male. In contrast, Simon's relationship with Flower is more like an equal. With Flower, it's more about having fun.
I found as long as I kept the roles and relationships of the characters constantly in mind, no matter what was happening in the story, it was much easier to write their dialog and show their actions. Although roles and relationships can change over time or over the course of a book, you still have to know clearly what those roles/relationships are at any given point.
4. FULLY EXPLORE KEY DIFFERENCES: AGE, CULTURE, EXPERIENCE, MALE/FEMALE, PLACE, PHYSICAL APPEARANCE, CLOTHING STYLES, PERSONALITIES, BEHAVIORS (IMPULSIVENESS, ETC...)
Just like real life people, each character is coming from his/her own place. Even an age difference of a few years can make a big difference.
In "STARLING," I wrote out all the details I could think of about how each character is physically different. Simon is a young Caucasian boy. He has freckles on his face. His hair's sandy and longer than other boys. And Simon's choice of clothing isn't only considered "odd" by his fellow students but downright "wrong." Simon's appearance is quite a bit different than Pete's. Peter is much taller than Simon. Pete has short hair. He dresses very well, stylishly, in a very mainstream fashion, and in a way that people admire.
5. MAKE SURE EACH CHARACTER SPEAKS AND ACTS DIFFERENTLY THAN THE OTHER CHARACTERS: KEEP ASKING YOURSELF, "WHAT DOES EACH CHARACTER WANT AS AN INDIVIDUAL?"
Even folks who grow up in the same town, went to the same schools and so forth, talk differently. Their speech reflects who they are and their personalities.
It's no different with your characters. Does one character repeat himself? Does another character use the word "like" a lot? (Or "a lot" a lot?) Does another swear? And yet another never swear at all?
Forget adhering to "proper grammar." Forget English class. Characters should talk like real people with fluid language (as words and manners of speech are always changing in real life). Focus on speech, how your characters really talk to each other (and how their relationships and personalities are SHOWN, not told, through their speech.)
In summary, check out this snippet from "Crucible." Simon, Jaya and Flower have been called to the office of Principal Dr. Pericles Pilotti. The teenagers have been made to wait outside the principal's office for a long time, so they're talking to each other about what's happening. Again, Simon is the one telling the story.
Flower glances at Jaya and me. "I wonder why they didn't call Pete in here too. It's like strange. I mean it's totally weird they just called us."
"Maybe they don't want to take Pete out of the gifted classes," I say. "I heard the Gifteds are taking a big field trip today to the Space Museum."
"I wish we could get out of here and do cool stuff like the Space Museum!" Flower hurls her hacky sack up against the yellow wall. It plops down onto the top of the cracked yellow couch. Flower picks it up and keeps hurling it against the wall, each time harder than the last. She's throwing the hacky with all her strength. "They get to do cool stuff no one else gets to do."
Jaya sighs. "Pete didn't sign the petition."
"That was lame!" Flower almost yells. "We're all in this together!"
"We shouldn't be too hard on Pete," Jaya says. "It's easy for anyone to get lost in a big dream that looks beautiful on the outside. They don't know a beautiful dream can quickly become a nightmare on the inside. Bet Pete's family would come down hard on him if they found out he was with us."