How to make your main characters unique?

by Alex

Question: Lately, I've noticed an issue in my writing. Whenever I get inspired to write something new, my main characters sound a bit alike. I realize what they all have in common is that they're like me. For example, I have anxiety and so most my main characters are a bit shy. A lot of them are avid readers or writers (or both).

By default, I place characters with more confident personalities as sidekick. This could also be because a lot of YA include the same sort of characters.

Do you have any advice on creating unique characters that aren't so similar to ones I've written before?

Answer: Many writers fall into the routine of writing main characters who are always the same person (themselves) with perhaps different hair colour, or some other superficial differences.

Here's a fact your English teacher might object to that is nonetheless true: in some genres, it doesn't matter and can actually be a good thing. When writers discover that a certain character type works for a certain audience, they often stick with it in order to sell more books to that audience.

So it is that many heroes in Adventure stories have similar personalities.

Many heroes in Westerns have similar personalities.

Many heroes in Thrillers have similar personalities.

Many heroines and heroes in Romance have similar personalities.

And many readers keep coming back to the same authors because they like the characters those authors create.

In some genres, particularly Mystery, writers tend to bring back their main character in every novel, turning their books into a series, rather than creating a new-but-mostly-the-same character for each book.

(You can't do this in Romance, because the heroine of each book has to find their one true love, and can't keep having new romances.)

It's not just about selling books, of course. Writers often enjoy writing about the same type of character because that's who they can connect with emotionally.

On the other hand, some writers opt to write under a pseudonym so they can write a different type of story without disappointing their readers who just want more of the same.

So writing the same type of main character more than once isn't necessarily a problem, as long as that character connects with the readers.

It's only a problem if...

1. Your main characters aren't connecting well with readers.

2. You are getting bored writing about them (i.e. you don't connect with them any more).

3. You are writing
for a literary audience (e.g. your English teacher) who might judge you for it.

4. Your typical main character doesn't fit the story you're working on now.

So let's assume you want to write about a different type of character. Here's the challenge...

To write about a character, you have to connect with them emotionally. If you can't, it's doubtful your readers will either.

One approach is to deliberately set out to create a different type of character than you've written before. Spend time developing all their traits, their backstory, the way they see the world, their emotional wounds, their voice, etc. Make different choices than you've made before.

It's challenging if you don't naturally connect with this new type of character. In that case, you really have to spend time getting to know them, understanding how they think and feel, seeing the world from their point of view, until they feel real and you forge an emotional connection to them in your mind. One way to do this is to spend time writing in first person, from their point-of-view (even if this writing is not included in the final manuscript).

A short-cut is to base your new character on someone you know who is different from you, but you nonetheless empathize with.

This is similar to how some actors develop their portrayal of characters.

Another approach is to recognize that you have more than one facet to your own personality. You may let some main characters reflect certain facets of yourself. But for other characters, you may want to explore and express facets of yourself that have been underrepresented.

This is easier for some writers than others, just as some actors are "character actors" who take on a different personality for each role they play while other actors seem the same in every movie.

In the end, you want to create the right main character for the story you want to tell. If you're telling the same type of story all the time (e.g. always Adventure or always Romance), then you don't have to vary your main characters as much. But if you are setting out to tell a different type of story, then it's worthwhile figuring out who the main character should be. Who might be uniquely suited to achieve the story goal? Who is personally affected by the story problem in a way that is interesting? Who's perspective will be the most valuable or relatable to your reader?

Hope that helps.

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