When I write new characters, their biggest problem is usually that they’re all me. I may be a bit of a character in some senses of the word, but lacking a well developed multiple personality disorder there is just one of me rattling around in my head. As the characters make it from my ideas to the page, they end up sounding somewhat the same.
How to take all of these imaginary creations and make them distinct, colorful, and engaging? This is something I’m still developing, but there are a few techniques I try.
Start with Archetypes
This one is tricky because you don’t want your characters to end up as stereotypes, which is in the same neighborhood. A stereotype is a simplified concept that is never fleshed out past two dimensions, but an archetype can give you a nice placeholder to fill in later. Is your character the Wisecracking Sidekick, the Bully, or the Wounded Child? Give yourself a sketch to hold them in your mind as they develop.
Here’s a great list of archetypes to give you some ideas.
Keep their Goal in mind
All of your characters should have some objective, some driving need, as they move through your story. Your character isn’t going to forget what they’re after, and neither should you. Keeping their goal in mind when a character is on the page helps keep them from getting sidetracked into irrelevant scenes or subplots.
Steal their face
I don’t do this one often, but many of my friends swear by it. Look through websites and magazines and find someone who looks like your character. It may be the famous actor you want to play that character in the movie adaptation of your work, or just a picture of a random person who has just the right smirk that you see your character having. Either way, having a clear image of the character helps make them more real and easier to write.
I like to use Flickr for browsing images of people for ideas. Here’s a search for “clever man“, for example.
This one almost goes without saying, but it is tricky for me when I start out. If I sit down and write a lot of backstory about a character I’m still discovering, I may not find him to be the same person I envisioned when I get back to the story itself. That’s not always a bad thing, but can be frustrating. I usually write the characters a bit first, either in the story or screenplay, then go back and start writing backstory based on what I’ve developed so far. I make it an iterative process rather than something I do as Step One.
Whatever method you use, keep working at your characters. If you can’t tell them apart by the time you’re done, odds are your audience won’t either.