by Lynette M. Burrows
Are your characters two-dimensional? Do they all sound like you and only you? Tune in to the music of character voices, make them sound more like the different instruments of a band or orchestra. Make music with your character voices and your readers won’t be able to get enough of the stories you write.
Great Characters are the key to great fiction.
Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
What or Who Your Character Is
There are many things to consider when creating your story characters. Many how-to-write articles suggest creating a detailed profile of your characters. Delving into a character’s birth place, likes and dislikes, job, hair color, and using tools like spreadsheets and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires can be helpful, but characters are more than the details on a spreadsheet or form. Character are more than their story role, more than the point of view you choose for them, and more than what they do in the story. Your characters each need a voice, a unique voice. But how do you create that?
The Key to Understanding Characters
When a writer is told they’re too young or haven’t lived enough life to write about it, it’s often because of a lack of understand the basics of character or even life. A general understanding of psychological personality types will go a long way to helping you create varied and interesting characters.
Learn about the fundamental personality types. Go deeper than Wikipedia, though it may give you an overview that is helpful. There are literally millions of sites on the internet that discuss variations on personality types. Choose one that’s reliable like psychcentral, psychology today, and The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Psych Central has a helpful explanation of what is personality. Psychology Today discusses the basics of personality traits. NIMH has a great resource on personality disorders. Those three sites offer multiple articles on personality, personality traits, and personality disorders.
Establish Your Characters’ Musical Pitch
The most significant part of any melody is pitch. It’s the part you remember, the part that you hum absentmindedly or sing with abandon.
When we read a story or watch a film, we connect with characters whose inner guidance system is most like ours. Choices the character makes, and the possibilities rejected by that character, fascinate us. The more we wonder, “would I have done that” and “what’s he going to do now,” the more we are hooked..
How do we create unique yet relatable characters? Go deeper in developing your characters.
Most people have morals, values, or other belief systems that guide them in their choices. It’s the reason they choose B over A when A and B are equal. Call it an inner guidance system, their pitch. Thousands of religious belief systems and a non-religious belief systems in the world offer potential for story characters.
Often we don’t think about our inner guidance system, it just is. It is significant because it is the belief that you could never do x, but y is okay.
The five dominate religions in the world are Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Develop a general understanding of each of them. Each belief system (religious or not) creates a different pitch. A person with deep beliefs in one of these systems will believe in different taboos and different words, actions, or events will trigger feelings of repulsion or guilt.
Decide which inner guidance system each of your characters follows. The more significant your character, the deeper you want to dive into their belief system and how it creates tension with or conflict between the others in your story.
Discover the Texture of Each Character’s Melody
Musical texture is a complex concept. The easiest way to understand it is to consider two or more versions of the same piece of music. One instrument plays one version. Two or three instruments play the next version. A full orchestra and a vocalist create a third version. Each of those versions has a different texture.
Characters play certain roles in stories: protagonist, hero, villain, antagonist, sidekick, etc. These roles define their story purpose. Story purpose is important, but don’t make the characters relatable or interesting or part of a symphony, orchestra, band, or even a song.
There is a spark in most people. It lights them up and spreads the joy or enthusiasm they have. Some people’s spark is a shining beacon. In others, it’s a tiny spark that keeps them going no matter how badly life piles it on.
This spark may look identical to all the characters in your story, but make sure it is unique to each individual character. The spark influences the way they see the world. It influences the way they interpret people, places, and events. They also gravitate toward people with similar sparks and away from those with extremely different sparks.
Your characters could all wish to be writers, but the thing that sparks their joy is different. One writer could be all about writing historical nonfiction, another lives and breathes fantasy, and a third writes contemporary women’s fiction. That means each of them will find different ways to interpret story events. Witnessing a historical event thrills a historical nonfiction writer. The fantasy lover may see the event as a unique way to introduce elves or vampires to a similar situation. And a contemporary women’s fiction writer might see it as a struggle a contemporary woman must overcome to be empowered.
Consider what sparks joy in each of your characters and how those sparks are different. How each character interacts with and interprets events around them will be different based on their view of the world. Who do they gravitate toward and who do they avoid?
Mimic the Rhythm of Music
In real life, people move and talk rhythmically in a way that is differs from other people. It may be similar within a family or between twins, but there are always variations.
Most people from the U.S. will assume that Southerners have a slower way of speaking. Consider the distinct speech patterns and word choices a midwestern farmer and an east coast Ivy School graduate use. Or the daily life rhythms of a suburban mom with the rhythms of an urban single woman. Is your character a native to the story’s locale or a visitor or an immigrant? You wouldn’t expect any of these people to dress, move or speak the same. They may have similarities, but their differences make them interesting. Create your characters with their own cadences of speech, body language, and movement.
The inner lives of people, the rhythms of movement and speech they use make ordinary characters extraordinary.
Cacophony or Symphony?
Is all this character development necessary? Writers could spend an eternity developing all the traits, practices, beliefs, emotions, history and all the things that create the music of a particular character. Some readers of specific genres don’t want to get all squishy about characters. Know your genre. Know how deeply you want to dive into your characters and if your readers will appreciate the music of character voices.
Developing all the pieces of your characters’ voices may create a cacophony that will confuse or distract your reader. Choose to develop the melodic parts of your characters that strengthen your story, your genre, your voice.
Need More Help?
You don’t have a natural ear for making your characters behave and talk like real people? There are ways you can work on achieving deeper characterizations.
If your critique partner say your characters all sound the same, read your dialogue aloud. Only the dialogue. Does it all sound the same? If it doesn’t sound the same to you, record yourself reading the dialogue. What inflections and tones do you add that aren’t reflected on the page? (Don’t worry, we all leave things off the page and think our readers can sense it.)
If you need forms or spreadsheets, check out Angela Ackerman’s post about Character Builder software on the One Stop for Writers site. There are many more available, experiment with them. And remember to go beyond the spreadsheets and forms.
Lori Freeland’s post explains that characters are people too and gives suggestions you may find helpful.
Become a people watcher. Go to a public space — a mall, a public park, the airport — anywhere people gather. Listen to the voices surrounding you, watch the body language, the clothing, attitudes. Ask yourself questions. What musical theme do the two people holding hands make? What makes those two people different from one another? How does the language and behavior of that family of four make them different? Even a child mimicking their parent has unique traits.
Deliberately create voices that are not yours. Research different personality types, different backgrounds and give your characters ones you don’t have. Go to festivals or international fairs and listen to the music of their voices and conversations. You might also learn interesting tidbits about their cultural background.
Make Your Story’s Music
Like all aspects of writing, it takes practice to become good at making the music of character voices work for you. You are the conductor and creator. You can do this.
The music of character voices in your story will strengthen your reader’s c