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My editor returned to me with her initial critique of my novel, saying some characters were too similar, and that they had the same likes and dislikes and flaws.

The characters she mentioned were exactly the characters whose personalities were more shown through their actions throughout the story, rather than dialog and me (the narrator) flat out pointing it out to the reader.

Who's in the right here? Am I just delusional or something, or do people really not catch on more subtle differences that aren't cartooney and extreme. Is it really true I can't have two characters be, for example both jolly or both stern and serious because then people think they're the same even though their motivations, goals, and more subtle aspects of the personalities are completely different?

I wrote this book keeping in mind that people thought I was treating my audience like idiots, constantly spelling things out for them and overexplaining. Now that I finally tried to back away from that, it backlashes.

I'm not sure what or who to believe anymore.

  • Lookup "Newhart" and the famous line: "I'm Larry. This is my brother Darryl. This is my other brother Darryl." – Pieter Geerkens May 9 '18 at 12:06
  • I did, but it’s just described that the two brothers don’t talk during this and stuff like that. – Klara Raškaj May 9 '18 at 16:49
  • When two characters mirror each other, it becomes satire rapidly. That can be either good, or bad, depending on context. Here, Newhart is satirizing the satiric concept itself, creating meta-satire. – Pieter Geerkens May 9 '18 at 18:12
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First, do get several opinions. While your editor may be able to abstract themselves from their own preferences and take on a neutral viewpoint or that of your intended audience, they are still human and have a taste that might differ from yours. So verify if others agree with their assessment.

Second, yes, characters in literature are usually distinct from each other on several levels. Readers prefer contrast, and it is generally more interesting to read about a group of different people than about several slight variations of the same personality type. This is especially true in genre fiction, where the focus is not primarily on the characters but on what happens to them.

But that doesn't mean that you mustn't write a character study that focusses on minimal differences between superficially similar persons. If that is what your book is about, and you write it well, it can be a satisfying read.


The problem your editor describes – if it is a problem and not intentional – usually happens when writers write themselves into their stories. If you write every character from your own emotional experience, they will all turn out to be a version of yourself and aren't distinguished clearly. Good character development requires that you abandon your personal experience and attempt to understand other people from their own viewpoint. Whether that is your problem, I cannot say. You need to self-reflect your character development process to tell.

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    I did not write those particular characters based on parts of my own personality, but I see your point about more wildly different characters being more interesting in genre fiction. – Klara Raškaj May 8 '18 at 9:09
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    @KlaraRaškaj Note that writing characters based on your own personality isn't something you usually do intentionally. Writing a non-strawman character that has a different personality and experience than the author is really hard work that requires constant effort from the author. – Cubic May 8 '18 at 11:38
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I'll side with your editor. Why do you need two jolly characters, or two stern characters? I wouldn't worry about mannerisms, I am more interested in purpose, intent, attitude and conflict.

I think you make it hard for two characters to be in conflict, and hard for two characters to have plausibly complementary skills (for synergy and needing each other) if they are too alike. Minor difference don't count.

You don't need to hammer readers over the head if you make them distinct. Roll your jolly characters into one; roll your cynics into one. A cynic and a jolly character can have synergy, at times one succeeds in a negotiation, at other times the stern cynic will succeed when friendly banter fails. At times brains beats brawn, at times brawn pummels brains.

Also, if your crew has only one of each type, disabling the one causes them hardships through the loss of that talent, an obstacle to overcome.

Your story should be efficient, only as many talents as you need and no more, and no duplicates. If you have a lot of the same type of character (eg "soldiers") then I'd keep them nameless and faceless until you need a specific one.

Also, rolling two same-talent same-personality characters into one will let you paint a richer picture of that one; instead of splitting time between two shallow versions of the same thing (and causing confusion).

You have the right idea to show personality through action. Do not avoid showing it through dialogue; much of personality is opinions, sometimes intelligence revealed through word choice or the complexity of sentences. Just keep any explicit statements (tellings) of life philosophy to a minimum, or somewhat cryptic: "Yeah, well, I don't believe in that. It's wrong." Without expansion or explanation. The kinds of things we actually say.

Characters do not always have to be extreme to make them different. IRL some are liberal, some are conservative, some are politically ignorant. Some are atheists, some are devout, some (male or female) are more promiscuous than others, more outgoing or shy, more selfless or selfish, more shallow-thinking or deep thinking, more analytic or more reactive, more talkative or quiet. More or less educated, more or less talented, more or less wealthy. Just make them distinct.

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  • Distinct how? They are distinct enough to me. I don’t understand why my editor called them the same just because they talk similarly and have similar mannerisms. This happens all the time. People who for example go to the same school share similar lingo and things like that. – Klara Raškaj May 8 '18 at 15:03
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    Sorry, I should have been more clear. Outwardly distinct. Yes, readers are that shallow. Distinct names, distinct "voices", distinct mannerisms if they have any, distinct senses of humor. Yes, sameness occurs IRL, but you aren't reflecting real life, and there are things in real life you cannot portray: Bob and his year-younger brother Bill could be nearly the same personality, but IRL we'd never confuse Bob and Bill. Their voices and faces are different, even if siblings. Readers don't have that advantage, you must give them diversity, non-internal, to keep them separate. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica May 8 '18 at 15:17
  • I’ve suspected as much, but I was waiting for someone to varify it for me. Thank you :) – Klara Raškaj May 8 '18 at 15:18
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Showing personality instead of saying personality can be great when done well. I agree with Cloudchaser's answer of getting another opinion.

I'd also recommend going back through and reading it yourself. Maybe not the whole thing, but focusing on just on those two characters and look to see if you can notice differences and similarities between the two of them. Try and figure out where they overlap and where they are different. Then differentiate between the two and make those personalities pieces more defined.

What you're trying to avoid by highlighting those differences is confusing your reader on who is the character in your scene. It should be natural for them to pick up on who it is, even if it isn't ever expressly stated. They can have a lot of the same motivations, but two people go about things differently, so two people who have the same flaws are going to be different, same with likes and dislikes.

For example:

Jane looked at the frozen yogurt in the window and at her reflection. It looked so tasty but she knew she shouldn't spend any more money on frozen yogurt this week. That didn't matter, it had been a bad day, she was going to get some.

John knew that the frozen yogurt shop was on the other side of the street. There was a specific reason that he was on the opposite side of the street. If he walked in front of the shop on a bad day, he knew he would go in and get some frozen yogurt.

This is a really small example, but we have two characters who have a weakness/like of frozen yogurt. The way I was trying to write it, not sure if it fully came across in the quick example, is that with John you can build on avoiding an issue or self-discipline that make him unique from Jane who might be more apt to give into temptation. The frozen yogurt piece, temptation by it and love of it, is the same, but you can create two different experiences with it that make the characters separate. Then you expound upon those differences in other scenes.

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Overexplaining and clearly delineating characters are two different and separate problems. It's worth remembering that fiction is not life, and things that happen often in life --like two people having similar likes and dislikes --can be unsatisfying in fiction. Even when people write autobiography, or lightly fictionalized versions of true events, several real people are often combined into one "composite character" because it's easier and more compelling that way for the reader. It's hard for most readers to keep track of many different characters, especially if their differences aren't "cartoony and extreme." Some of us even have that problem dealing with real people.

There's really three different ways to solve this problem. One, already mentioned, is to reduce your number of characters, and to keep only the ones you really need, combining similar characters into one. Another is to embrace "cartoony and extreme" differences. For instance, there are several theater traditions (notably British and Italian musical comedy) that always revolve around variations on the same set of familiar, clearly delineated characters. People may deride this approach, but it's a reliable, time-tested crowd pleaser.

The final solution is just to put in some careful, conscientious work on character building to make sure these characters really come alive as separate people. If you have built them up vividly enough, you shouldn't have to overexplain them --their differences will naturally make their way into your work.

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I don't personally think you need to make your characters starkly different in personality. That seems ... like a really odd suggestion to me. Playing up uniqueness is probably a good idea, but I wouldn't worry if two characters are largely the same.

Big picture: What's probably happening is that the reader's experience is different than the author's. It isn't that readers are stupid or whatever, but they come to the words with a different mindset.

They (we) need clues. Action is the best - I think that's great that you do that. Dialog tags are good too. Look to see if you have enough - particularly in scenes between the characters your editor identified.

But another easy fix is - you can also add in a verbal tick unique to each character. The reader just needs a clue as to the speaker. A stammer is a possibility, but it can also be a word. Maybe your character adds the word "Well," or "Listen" to the beginning of some of their sentences. Not every one, but some. Just enough to tip the reader off that these characters are different. (or unusual syntax, or complexity of language ...)

Someone said the first good draft is for the author, but after that the writing (editing) is all for the readers. Or something like that.

p.s. I was surprised that a reader thought three of the women in my story (all secondary characters) were too similar. They are night and day in terms of education level, livelihood, fears, hopes and dreams, etc. But this reader simply characterized them all as wives in a patriarchal society. This reader didn't see beyond that - - - Which tells you something - it tells me that readers may only take a very superficial look at the story you're telling. I made a quick fix to one character, giving her a business to run and making her husband the trailing income. Nothing in her personality or story is changed, at all (the story isn't about her business!) and the society allows this sort of arrangement anyway. I'll be curious if he still thinks she is like the other wives.

I also sometimes wonder if a small physical distinction, like 'The pinky on his left hand was severed when he was a child,' would help the reader keep characters straight. Just a little thing that doesn't need to impact the story, but graphic enough to leave an impression.

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You can have multiple characters who are jolly or stern, but if you describe them that way, yeah, it can be annoying or confusing. Please remember that reading is essentially pattern-recognition, so the brain will form connections of specific words over time to those characters due to recurrence.

If two of your characters are constantly described as stern, then it is problematic as the word will have two constant associations instead of one. I suggest you use different wording but keep your overall character personality the same.

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