I'm currently working on a team based story with a lot of characters and am looking for ways to really make their personalities stand out from one another. When I'm writing out their character profiles I get to a certain point where, two male characters, for example, seem like the same character wearing another face. I give them different traits, and backgrounds but when I think about how they'll react to things, they seem like copies of one another. I thought perhaps I wasn't developing their personalities enough, but maybe it's another issue? Any advice will be greatly appreciated and I hope this edit clarifies things a bit.
There are whole books on characterization; it is difficult to treat in a few hundred words.
What makes characters stand out from each other is what makes the people around you unique; their attitudes, skills, upbringing and background (life up to when we meet them), morals, to some extent their education/training, how emotional they are, how fearful they are, what they fear or will go out of their way to avoid, what they love or will go out of their way to engage.
Attitudes can relate to how much they respect law and order, constituted authority, do they respect the rabble or only the well-educated, or vice versa? How do they feel about racial issues? What are their sexual standards? For example, female spies often engage in sex acts with targets to gain information; and become what the target wants in order to get close to them. Her attitudes toward who she is willing to get naked with and what she is willing to do for them have to be pretty unconstrained, even more so than a common prostitute. (Because the prostitute can find another John, the spy must seduce a specific person.)
Think about each character's background, it is a product of their personality, and it should all be consistent with what they have become when we meet them. If I have a hacker, I have somebody that has spent countless hours alone, every day growing up, fiddling with code and computers and teaching themselves to hack. That requires a certain personality, a willingness to put aside friends and socializing to GAIN those hours alone. Also a disregard for privacy and the law. What entertains them? Solving puzzles and finding weaknesses, victory over another mind.
If I have a warrior, I have somebody that has spent countless hours training with weapons, fighting without weapons. They have become accustomed to being hurt, bruised, perhaps even broken, they can endure pain and keep on fighting, they have panic and fear trained out of them. That takes a resolute personality.
What are they good at? Why, and how did they get that way, what aspects of their personality lets them endure the 10,000 hours of practice it takes to become an expert at it?
What are they bad at? Why? People bad at something have given up on getting good at it. So what in their personality prevents them from succeeding at this? Is it a lack of intelligence or understanding? Is it a fear of physical pain? Is it a fear of emotional pain, rejection or ridicule or embarrassment? Impatience? These traits will pervade the rest of their lives and relationships, too.
You make your characters distinct by making them distinct people. Even if they play stereotypical roles (the fighter, the hacker) you don't have to give them a stereotypical background. For example, your hacker might be quite expert with a handgun, not because she grew up with them or loved shooting -- She did neither -- but because in college after a walking-home-at-night fear, she was certain somebody was definitely following her. Perhaps she is a little paranoid, too. She made a conscious decision to arm and protect herself, and treated shooting like a puzzle to solve, and by dint of intelligence she became an expert at it. And she is a solitary person, alone most of the time, and her gun comforts her and allays her fears. There is a reason our hacker is a good shot and has a handgun in her purse, and another under her mattress, and one in her car, and one in the kitchen drawer. And why none of them will fire without her palm print on the handle, because she is a hacker.
Like this example I just made up; avoid the easy, empty motivations. She doesn't love guns because her daddy raised her that way; that's an empty excuse. So is "She just loves X." Or "I am just that way." Those are easy ways out for you, the author, not explaining what should be explained. Look for something deeper, and harder for you to invent. Too many characterizations on paper fall flat because they are incoherent, and they are incoherent because there is no good back story for them.
If she is suspicious of strangers, why? Invent a concrete reason, an event, or something that happened to her mother or friend. Have a reason ready, she was conned out of $5000 by believing a stranger. That may turn into half a line of explanation, but it's there. If another character asks "What's wrong with you?" in regard to her distrust, she can tell them, "I have experience, I've been conned and robbed and I don't make the same mistake twice." This little micro-conflict between two characters doesn't have to go anywhere or become a feud; but it adds momentary tension and helps build two characters: They are obviously distinct if their core beliefs produce a disagreement. And that is what you want.
Every little brick you struggle to invent in this story goes into a wall of creativity. That is much of the secret of a good book; condensation: that you labor for six months or a year, to make something somebody can read at a page a minute, and find in that minute a few hours worth of your creativity.
As others have said, you could stand to narrow the question down. That being said, if it's a team-based story, you can easily use their role as a starting point for how to give them distinct characterisation.
For example, I have a team involving a female swordmaster (at a time where this is unusual), a formerly homeless master archer, and a scholar/spymaster with a traumatic past. There are others in the team, but for illustrating the example for the question, this will do.
Firstly, the swordmaster; she's unusual for the time, and obviously had to struggle against society's pressures the entire time she worked for her role as swordmaster. The fact she achieved it means that:
- She's a hard worker
- She believes in her way over anything else and is willing to stick with it
- She understands swordplay at far more than just an instinctive level
- She's likely very detached from her feminine side
Hence, when characterising her, I made her, in essence, a female-to-male transman in a setting where unfortunately gender reassignment is just not a thing. So this explains her attitude; she doesn't care what people say, to her, she's a man no matter what, and she's getting a career related to that.
She's also a good teacher, because her hard work against the odds, the necessity of her breaking down every technique, means she's able to relay the granular, down-to-basics approach to others. However, she's also stubborn, and if giving advice about anything other than swordplay, she tends to default to 'I did it this way, you should try doing that' rather than actually thinking about the situation.
Secondly, the formerly homeless master archer: He's obviously someone who was raised from a very rough place, but if he managed to rise up to Master Archer, he must have either had a stroke of luck or exceptional determination and belief in himself. However, he's likely not going to be polite or especially diplomatic. So here's the points gleaned from his situation:
- Impolite and rough in speech
- Likely more aware of injustice than most
- Proud of how far he's come
- Must have a dash of instinctive skill to even get started
This led to me characterising the Master Archer as a bit of an asshole. He managed to eat by using a slingshot to kill pigeons (often domesticated ones used by scholars) to either sell to piemakers or eat himself. Then I considered; how was he such a good shot? Well, it's that he has OCD; he obsesses over trajectory and hates himself completely if he misses.
This in turn led me to make him an asshole. His OCD and skill at killing pigeons make him save up for a bow until eventually, he gets noticed at the city archery tournament. Now he's the Master Archer, and never fails to remind everyone that he started at the bottom and now he's at 'the top' as far as he's concerned. And unlike the swordmaster, he attributes his skill to being himself, not intense training, and due to the fact a mental illness unique to him is part of his skill, he can't actually relay that skill that well to others.
This allows the swordmaster (calm and disciplined, a good teacher, proud and determined) and the master archer (rough and annoying, a bad teacher, but also proud and determined) to act as foils to one another. One got where they did by discipline, the other by raw determination and sheer chance.
As you can see, with this set up, it's just begging for a character in the middle; we have the calm, the emotive, now we need the balance to complete the freudian trio.
So lastly, we have the spymaster/scholar hybrid. He came from an abusive family, yet rose up to become a 'wisdom', a position that requires a lot of mentally-demanding tasks. However, he wasn't supposed to inherit the job from his mentor as early as he did; that was due to his mentor dying early. So from this basic scaffold we can derive:
- He's intelligent, but not necessarily wise
- He regularly relies on information provided by others, and easily delegates
- He has an uneasy relationship with intimacy
- He's not fully qualified for his position and knows it
I then looked at what I wanted for his abusive past. In the end, abandoned mother and abusive father (abusing him for preferring academics to military pursuits) fit the bill, and in that case, what would motivate him to persist through an academic career with that in mind? Well, it's simple: His mentor and his spy assistant were the closest things to parental figures he ever had.
So, in addition to trusting his spies immensely, once his mentor died it was like losing a father. It would also make him equate his skill at his job with his self-esteem, as he'd likely have little to no attachment to his true father if he began to see his work partners as family.
Once thrust into the position of 'father' on the mentor's death, he would be both overwhelmed and desperately attempt to be the nurturing, paternalistic, understanding figure he (rightly or wrongly) saw his mentor as, only to experience failure after failure. This leads to his present self being undecided; sometimes he's cold and utilitarian, other times he's warm and loving.
However, one thing he always knows is that he's reliant on others' input; his main job is to process the input and come up with an answer that fits everyone, enabling him to act as the balance between the swordmaster and the master archer.
I rambled a fair bit here, but my point is this: Start with a few very bare-bones ideas of what you want your character to be. From there, elaborate, explain out what could have made them the way they were. As you explain and grow them out, you may find (like in these three's case) that they naturally eke out a dynamic between themselves.
And in a team-based story, dynamics and interactions are one of the most, if not the most crucial part of any story.
Paint from life. Don't make lists and spreadsheets.
To build a great character, I really don't like to go from the "top down" with a list of archetypes and trying to give each one some quirky trait and a cool nickname, etc etc ad nauseum. I find that characters which began as "Big tough guy 1" and evolved into "Uses archaic slang. Collects action figures." never seem to really achieve life no matter how many quirks you give them.
I never start with blank spots for roles and try to give them (ultimately annoying) traits to seem memorable. Instead, I start from the bottom up. I try to visualize the character in the setting, moving up from what they look and sound like to the details of what they think about things and why.
I observe people. I categorize personalities, not in a formal "personality type" kind of way, but more aesthetically, as personalities which seem to be similar, related, or have similar motivations. I often start a new character by literally borrowing a real phrase, action, or activity I have seen a real person I know engage in. That gives them life immediately, because I can describe the thing I saw which caught my attention for one reason or another. From there, I work my way up into their head as the story progresses, but only as far as I need to go. I don't need to know the entire backstory for every character, just like I don't need to know the backstory for everyone I meet on a bus. People happen to be here, they cross paths with me, they clearly have reasons for the things they do, and in most cases, I am never privy to those reasons and will never know what they are. I can still observe their behavior though.
Leaving out motivations can add realism, because in real life we don't get windows into everyone's heads, nor are people reducible to a simple formula, a witty catchphrase, or an exaggerated quirk. Just like a painter may capture a stranger's expression as they pass on the street and never know what that person was thinking in that moment, a novelist can capture very realistic behaviors without needing to know everything that motivated the event they are copying.
Once I start a character by borrowing something I saw a real person do once, I then usually have a very easy time knowing what they would do or say in any given situation. All I need to do is visualize the person I borrowed the memorable dialogue or action from and ask myself: "What would so in so do?" Dialogue flows nicely, actions come organically from a character's personality, and over the course of the story, the character will tend to evolve a bit away from whoever had been the inspiration, until they become their own person. At some point, I find myself asking what the character would do by name, rather than the name of the person I initially based them on. At that point, I know the character is very strong.
You have too many characters
As soon as your characters begin to resemble each other, you have more characters than you are able to deal with.
It might be a problem of having more characters than the story needs. Then you'll need to evaluate what roles you need and how many characters you need to fulfill them. Often one character can fulfill several roles. So maybe the two characters need to be merged, or one of them merged with another character.
This often happens when aspiring writers have a simple straightforward storyline that calls for a single protagonist and maybe one companion, but want to use a group of adventurers like in the Lord of the Rings. They have the grumpy dwarf, the wise elf, the honorable human, the mysterious thief, and so on – but what are they all gonna do? What do they say when they sit around the fire? How are their relationships playing out? If the story doesn't need them all, they will soon begin to resemble each other, because they are all just aspects of the single protagonist that the story really needs.
So if you are working on a team based story, I very much suspect that you have come up with as many characters as the team needs to write together, but haven't yet come up with a story that actually needs all these characters. What you have is like an online computer game that offers a hundred different characters for the players to choose from, but they all have the same goal and the same quest to go on, and the same tasks to fulfill.
What you may have done is decide on the number of characters based on the number of writers in your team and the writing process that you have agreed on, instead of developing in a story first approach and deducing the number and personalities of your characters from your story.
The Quick Route to Distinction
The Fatal Flaw
This is some part of the personality/self that is out of control of the main character, or at least if it's going to be fixed it's going to take an entire book and whether they succeed may determine whether the characters succeed.
Greed, Perfectionism, Lust, Dumb, Glutony, Naive, Sloth, ... continuous list of faults which could weaken a character.
Each character should have their own and should be tied into their story, why they are the way they are, and why they don't quite fit with others. What's more, when the fatal flaw get's activated it takes character off of whatever track they were supposed to be following.
Each flaw will inform different behavior, different avoidances, different types of failure and at times different responses to innate situations.
This is a thing that is not "part" of the character, but which the character believes about themselves or about the world that prevents them from doing things. A respect for life, might lead to pacifistic attitudes that make being a part of war particularly hard. Whereas, a refusal to tolerate mistakes in others because you believe you must demand perfection of those around you will likely not win you too many friends, and it's a personal belief.
These are the types of things that make minor character arcs. They are your bread and butter. But, they aren't the things that people remember in ten years after reading your book.
If you're really struggling then you give each character a quirk. This can be something silly that just really stands out; or it could be a distinct behavior they constantly do. Maybe they exclaim a certain way; maybe they are always steeling things in whatever room they are in; maybe they always poke a bear; Maybe they believe something rediculous; maybe they are always sarcastic; maybe there's a token they always hold and think about...
A quirk is a habit, device, or behavior that's always around when that character is around.
Each character likely wants something different. Now that you know what they aren't. And you've got something ancillary that makes your characters distinctive and memorable, you need to make sure they are motivated to do different things. With their flaws, handicaps and quirks they're going to value different things. And so, when they see a problem they are going to tackle it in different ways, believe different things. Or, if they work well together they'll know which way they need to go (but also who they need to steer in the right direction).
Go read The Reckoners by Brandon Sanderson if you want to see this strongly in action. It's a team based story, and without ruining anything here are a few quirks, handicaps, flaws, goal:
- A character who can't use metaphor correctly, but constantly wants to.
- A character who say's he's Scottish, has a story about how those ancestors invented every little thing, but likely doesn't actually know anything about that background.
- A character that emphasizes hip/young/popular teen
- A character that used to be a mortician, constantly makes jokes about death
- A french candadian (quirk enough?) who believes the bad guys will be good guys some day
- A character who believes they will betray everyone and is afraid of themselves (more handicap/flaw)
- A character who is lazy and rolls over for others to avoid confrontation
- A character who is caring for a woman he loved who is now in a coma, and can't leave his location, can't be discovered.
Know Your Boundaries, Get Variation
Give your characters enough unique personality qualities and they can't help but take different positions on issues. They won't seem like the same people at all. The more individual they are, the more distinct they appear.
I'm going to offer one other thought to consider.
"I get to a certain point where, two male characters, for example, seem like the same character wearing another face."
If you don't feel this way with a male and female character, for example, or if you think that changing one of these two males to a female might solve your problem ... then it is not their reactions that are telegraphing sameness to you, but aspect.
You may not need to change their character, but their aspect. How to do this?
~Give them different dialects--nothing extreme, but enough of a tipoff. Or if not dialect, change their speech patterns. One speaks in questions or tends to joke or runs off at the mouth while the other is more taciturn.
~Give one distinctive physical appearance. Missing an ear. Wears a mullet. Always carries a ukulele. If you give one a physical trait that impacts his action (missing a hand; always has to do things left-handed) this can be subtly reinforced through dialog and narration.
~Radically change the age of one.
~Make certain their names have very different 'feels' to them. If one is named Adolf and another is named Joseph, that in itself suggests difference to the reader.
I think you can get a lot of mileage out of a simple thing like changing character aspect.