On Writing Distinct Characters Who Aren’t Just Versions of Yourself

The second big question I have to answer, as I work on revising NEXT BOOK, is how to avoid making Ellen Everton too much like Meredith Gruber.

This was one of the topics Maggie Stiefvater discussed in the Portraits and Dreams seminar I took last February: how to ensure your main character wasn’t always the same main character (who, in turn, wasn’t always a loose translation of yourself).

Ellen is a lot less like me than Meredith was (although in The Biographies of Ordinary People I really poured myself into both Meredith and Jackie) but the two characters have some obvious similarities:

  • They are both single women.
  • They are both oldest siblings.
  • They both live in their heads.

They also have some obvious differences:

  • Meredith is ambitious. Ellen is not.
  • Meredith wants to find her place in the world. Ellen does not believe the world owes her anything, including satisfaction with her own life.
  • Meredith is language-oriented. Ellen is systems-oriented.
  • Meredith cares about how she presents herself to the world, in terms of clothing choices, hair styling, social interactions, etc. Ellen does not.
  • Meredith’s happiest moment in The Biographies of Ordinary People comes when she is onstage, sharing a story she wrote and then singing in harmony with her sister. Ellen’s happiest moment in the first chapter of A Coincidence of Doors is when she is finally alone at the end of the day and can take 20 minutes to read the latest swords-and-sorcery paperback she got at the library.

But… Ellen and Meredith both go to the library, and they both like reading, and they both compare death to falling down the pit in Super Mario (that part I should for sure change). At one point both Ellen and Meredith make a to-do list, and maybe that makes them too similar, but maybe people just make to-do lists?

Both books also feature a Midwestern Shakespeare festival—the same Shakespeare festival, in fact, though I never refer to it by its full name in either book. It’s the one I spent three years working for, and it popped up in this story because (like Biographies) it’s mostly set in the Midwest, and I really love giving my novels a distinct sense of place.

But… well, Ellen would never want to be onstage performing Shakespeare the way Meredith would, and yet she still ends up attending a Shakespeare play, and yes you can tie that back to her interest in swords-and-sorcery novels and her desire to connect with hundreds-years-old traditions like Solstice and her dream of escaping into another world, and you can also say WELL, NICOLE CAN’T WRITE A BOOK WITHOUT PUTTING SHAKESPEARE INTO IT.*

I mean, maybe I will someday.

I also think that as long as I go through and pull out the inadvertent similarities like the Super Mario thing, Ellen and Meredith will read as distinct characters. However, they’ll read as distinct versions of the same type of character, which is another trap writers often fall into, and I am NOT GOING TO NAME NAMES but I bet you can think of a few examples on your own.

Which is pretty much what Maggie Stiefvater said would happen, in a typical writer’s early novels. Your first protagonist is you. Your second protagonist is not you, but still contains a lot of you-ness because that’s what you’re most familiar with. The more you write, the more you learn about how to write fully-realized characters who are fully themselves—and, honestly, I’m not sure I’m there yet.

But I’m still writing. ❤️

*Fun fact: the novel I wrote in high school, in which a bunch of characters with swords battle an evil empire, also included a chapter where the characters had to disguise themselves as actors and put on a verse play. So no, I can’t write a book without putting Shakespeare, or a Shakespeare analogue, into it.

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