Individualism Without IndividualismIn a very mechanical sense, how do you make characters stand apart? It’s a simple question with a huge importance. Simply because it is simple does not mean that the question is not downright fundamental. In all senses of the phrase, your characters literally revolve around this question.
In visual stories, telling characters apart is easy. Most people look different. On stage and in films, you have professionals who determine the look of every character and every actor. Most characters have no name and no speaking roles, but by their costumes, we can tell what we need to know. This extends to primary characters as their costumes, too, give us vast information about the character.
In a book, as you don’t have visuals constantly reminding the reader,how else can you differentiate characters?
A character’s job or role helps make them unique. The very fact of a character being an army general makes that character vastly different from a buck private or a drill sergeant. A cook is different than a smith. A shepherd is different than a cowboy. Once you know their job, you know something about how they interact with the world.
Starting from a job works better with minor characters, as their job is dominant. For primary characters, a job is less dominant but is still informative, often providing action or providing interference with the plot.
Some characters have roles to play in a story. Which characters voices moral concerns? Which character pushes for a fight? Who is the voice of reason? Who is the leader? Who is a font of information? Who is the ingenue?
Social status is another aspect of differentiation. The bank president is not the homeless man by the subway, who is not the high school student walking home after basketball practice. Simply picking a status informs the reader of the character.
Sometimes, what differentiates a person is not who they are, but what they mean to the primary character. That cashier is the bank president’s daughter, and she is friends with a homeless man.
Natural disagreement is another powerful tool. Characters will have different world views or opinions. Acknowledging those opinion difference, exploring them, and wrestling with them is exactly what writing is about.