I have a problem. I have 2 main characters, A and B, who have pretty much the exact same personality traits. The trouble is, this is historical fiction and I can't change who they are. The 2 characters are real-world people who lived and died and have biographies, and I don't want to take "artistic liberties" with their character traits.

How can I distinguish these 2 characters in my writing, so they don't come off as clones?

Here's more info that may help you help me:

  1. This is science fiction, involving an alternate history of Earth from the early 1960's onwards.

  2. Person A is the leader of his nation. Person B, also a man, is the leader of a major design/engineering firm working on critical new technology. They regularly meet and deliberate on all sorts of things from logistical planning to funding to what to do about the enemy nations (they have a lot of scenes together; they are the main characters after all).

  3. A and B share the following traits: Sharp, Charismatic/Passionate, Strong-Willed, Busy, Crafty, Paranoid, Persistent, Patriotic.

  4. I selected those traits from this list based on their biographies. And judging from those bios, I honestly could not find any trait that is unique to one and not the other.

  5. There are other characters. There may be 7 to 10 main characters (who recur regularly throughout the whole story). A trivial "solution" I thought of was to increase the share time of the other characters, but I don't think this will really work because A and B would still appear to be clones.

So what can I do? Will I be forced to just apply them to different roles? Give them different friends or different kinds of jokes they like?

Ask for more details if you need them. I'm really in a pickle about this.

EDIT: I forgot about their physical characteristics. Both are somewhat fat, but A is significantly shorter than B. And one of them is bald.

EDIT 2: This is actually partly alternate history, and maybe historical fiction too. Their definitions confuse me.

  • 1
    Historical fiction is when you keep the historical time line, and "insert" your fictitious character into historical events. Alternate history is when you create a new time/event line that does not match the historical one.
    – Tom Au
    May 22, 2017 at 12:58
  • @TomAu Ah, got it. Then my work starts out as Historical Fiction, but soon diverges into Alternate History.
    – DrZ214
    May 22, 2017 at 13:02

8 Answers 8


Make their similarity a theme in your narration.

These people are friends and work together because they are so similar. It is enough that you clearly identify them by name, profession and life circumstances (live at different place, have different family, etc.), but don't destroy the driving factor of that relationship. Rather, have the narrator, or even the characters themselves, mention or discuss this, and explore its effects on the two persons and how they relate to each other.

  • While I can't really argue with what you're saying, I'm not sure how to implement it. I of course won't destroy the driving factor of their relationship, and just now I realized they need each other to survive. BTW this was originally a plot-driven story, but has evolved to include a lot of emotion. One of my goals is to give it a balance of plot-driven and character-driven things, even though most characters will end up not changing.
    – DrZ214
    Aug 8, 2015 at 4:22
  • 1
    I think it's enough if you change your perspective from "they are too similar and need to be more different" to "that similarity has meaning". The change of perspective will 'implement itself'.
    – user5645
    Aug 8, 2015 at 7:45
  • Yes the similarity has meaning now that I think about it, but they work together because its their job to and they happen to be the leaders in their fields. But I suppose they work together well because they're so similar. For the record, I wasn't trying to say they need to be more different. I was looking for writing techniques to help distinguish two people, like maybe applying a different writing style to different scenes, although I have no idea what that would look like.
    – DrZ214
    Aug 8, 2015 at 16:57
  • 1
    One way to do this is to show mirroring scenes. Show A with his wife, and then B with his wife. A faced with a dilemma, and then B faced with a similar dilemma in his setting. Don't go overboard with it, but these kinds of scenes will show both how similar their surroundings are, and serve to highlight the subtle differences between them. Aug 12, 2015 at 19:03

Character difference is relative. Two spies are almost certainly more like one another than a spy and a nun, but that doesn't mean you can't write a book about two spies. They entered the service for the same reason, and they feel the same way about their job. Just take all the similarities as your baseline, and figure out how they differ when you take the similarities as a given. Zoom in on the small differences and blow them up.

This is almost certainly how their relationship feels to them: we tend to forget how similar we are to our friends and family, and focus exclusively on the differences. I might vote the same as my friend, deal with people the same way, have the exact same education and like the same movies, but when I think about him, I'll forget those things and focus on his job being better or my girlfriend being prettier. We may live in the same city, but I'll focus on the fact that his house is closer to the center, while mine is in a better neighborhood.

In your case, B may feel inferior to A, since A has more power. How does he deal with this? And does A feel superior? Or is A the kind of leader who watches his ego, and feels he needs B's expertise. Perhaps A feels he's not up to the job and is glad to have B to help him out. It's a small start, but they have a highly asymmetrical relationship.

You should also think about their development. Do they stay the same throughout the story, or to they eventually grow apart? It's unlikely that they develop in exactly the same way. It would be interesting to start with two very similar friends, and to show how their different settings cause them to grow apart and become different people. A might become corrupted by his power, while B is kept level by his good relationship with his family. Perhaps B is jealous of A's power, and decides to subtly undermine him. Plenty of options.

  • Good examples in the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs, thanks.
    – DrZ214
    Aug 12, 2015 at 20:00
  • 1
    I like the spies example too. Everybody know James Bond, yet everybody can distinguish two incarnations of Bond by differents actors. They're the same character, yet they are very different in regard to each other. How would you describe two differents James Bond if they were to play in the same story?
    – kikirex
    Feb 26, 2018 at 22:06

Give them a physical difference. Something to visualize the contrast binds the concept of the character to the visual part of the brain. I personally am a fan of facial hair for this particular case as it is visual memorable, capable of great variation and in most cases insignificant to the plot or the character. if one has a mustache and the other does not this may be enough, although I am pretty sure that if you keep looking you can find other physical differences. You can also highlight other minor differences such as minor preferences, such as what they find attractive in the opposite sex. (If you can find pictures of their wives this can give you ideas for this, also look at the biographies of the wives to see if they had notable personality characteristics. 'Yes, she is attractive but she has the personality of a sponge. My nelly may have the face of a horse, but I can actually talk with her.') You can also draw on other minor distinguishing marks that are picked up from jobs or hobbies, such as the ink stained pocket of an engineer. Bottom line you don't need a large difference, you just need to notice that there is one.

  • Thank you this is really useful! I forgot to talk about their physical differences (I edited the OP with that). One of them is bald! Maybe I can give one of them a hat? Or other uniforms maybe.
    – DrZ214
    Aug 8, 2015 at 4:24
  • Watch the movie Sliding Doors for many examples of how to distinguish characters physically. In that movie, the filmmakers had distinguish characters in one timeline from the same characters in an alternate timeline. Aug 8, 2015 at 18:40

There are nearly an infinite amount of ways to differentiate these characters. What you have described are easily observable traits such as physical looks, and their basic beliefs. What you are missing is what makes these people appear real, and not just two dimensional characters that are born on X date and died on Y date.

Find out more about their home life, and background. If they are well known historical figures, then it would be fairly simple to do that. Ask questions such as:

Where were they born?

Did they grow up with money?

Did they go to college?

What college did they attend?

Did they get married and have children?

What are the children's ages?

What is the name of the wife and kids?

There are hundreds of other questions you could ask. Once you have that information, it should not be hard to make them seem different.


I learned a million tricks when I was writing a novel with identical twins as the main characters. Most of the work is done in the dialogue.

Do not use those which don't apply.

Select three pairs expressions which essentially me the same thing. e.g. "Go for it" = "Have at it", "Knock yourself out" = "Feel free.". "Really?" = "D'ya think?"

Assign three expressions to each character.

Repeat for cuss words. Repeat for blasphemy. Repeat for salutations.

Select different beverages for each character: coffee, tea. Same with alcohol. One drinks JD the other diet-Coke.

One talks 'sport'. The other 'women'.

You'd be surprised how quickly the reader works out who's who.


I write historical fiction too, so I understand what you're dealing with.

I'd suggest focusing on small things, particularly emotional ones.

They may be passionate but that passion may reveal itself in different forms. One can be so passionate, he forgets to eat, while the other doesn't.

More than focusing on general traits, focus on emotions. One may have a fear or insecurity driving him, or just poking him every now and then, while the other has a different fear or insecurity (one may fear old age and its dimwitness while the other may fear becoming crippled and unable to be independent).

For these small things, look at events that they witnessed as children and teenagers, both within the family and within their hometown. If nothing is written about it, imagine something. If there was in fact a war, then imagine that A witnessed the return of their neighbour as a sadly dependent cripple. Or maybe the dates show B got to meet his great-great-grandfather, who died when B was only six. Now imagine the old gentleman had a bad case of dementia that deeply unsettled the young B.

The key is to go beyond the general traits and get to the one (or two) very specific loves and fears that either spur the character on or freeze them from acting.


Well, it's not purely historical fiction, if it's also science fiction. And even in historical fiction, the word "fiction" has a role to play in the final result.

I'd say you probably want to focus on the role these characters are playing not in history, but in your book. If they are truly indistinguishable - they have the same opinions, same knowledge, same resources, etc - then I think you might want to look for ways to combine them into one character and simplify things. But likely they aren't quite that identical.

So, in your book, maybe there's a back and forth between them - the political leader expresses a need, the engineer finds a way to address the need through technology, the leader critiques, the engineer refines - whatever. The point is that they're distinguished through their actions, not their character sketches.

Not every single character in a book has to be a completely distinct personality at the planning stages. They'll become distinct as you give them things to do.

  • I may have confused historical fiction with alternate history. I'm not sure on their exact differences but I suspect there's elements of both in my work. And yes that back and forth you speak of happens all the time in Part 1. However, the roles they play in the book has largely to do with history, or a new history. Their role, although they dont necessarily know it as they "do their jobs", is creating a new history, because that's what the book is about to a large degree.
    – DrZ214
    Aug 8, 2015 at 16:51

I was reminded of the story of twin brothers, who "had entirely different tastes in women." They may do many of the same things, but go about them differently. One may be "spiritual, the other non-religious. They may have different intellectual gifts, one may be better with words, the other with numbers. One may be nicer, or at least more sincere than the other. One may be "big picture," the other, detail- oriented.

There are plenty of "opposite" traits you may find even within the parameters you've outlined.

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