Sometimes, we chase our characters across the page as fast as our fingers can move across the keyboard, and it’s in the editing stages where we refine and invigorate them. Prewriting and planning can flesh out so much, but often, you don’t know them as comprehensively as possible until their story is fully captured on the page.
(And that’s “flesh out,” not “flush out,” but you knew that already, right?)
How can you differentiate your characters after the first draft? Here are three areas of focus for character refinement.
Character Differentiation Analysis: Fleshing Out What You’ve Started
Does your character have a poker face? Or do they have “tells”? Remember: every single person who walks the face of this earth gives away clues that show how they’re feeling. Think about a person you know well. The moment they walk into a room, you likely can observe their mood. How? Well, it’s not because they’re holding up a sign that says, “I’m feeling nervous/happy/scared/zen.” We all have our own unique tics, mannerisms, go-to actions, and expressions that say so much without any vocalized words.
Consider this concept for every major character on your page. Think beyond “smiles” and “sighs” and “biting their bottom lip.” Go deeper and individualize them. Brainstorm it out—character by character, emotion by emotion—then bring these subtleties, these “emotional tells,” onto the page for your readers to discover. If you do, your reader will feel more connected to your characters because they will understand them in a more complex way.
Beyond mannerisms that give away emotions, what is unique about how each of your characters moves? Do they all sit, turn, gesture, shrug, and nod in a way that mimics all the others? Or do you have one character who’s always physically active, one character who is endlessly obsessed with his hair, and one character whose posture and poise defines her? People are different. Allow them to be. Allow your characters to seize upon the wonder of individuality captured within their physical, active presence.
Go to a park, a coffee shop, or any public place, and people-watch. Examine your own specific behaviors. Making a story come alive is sometimes as simple as capturing the specifics that humanize us as we’re living our lives. Enable your characters to exist with that same level of personalized reality.
Readers should hear the characters’ voices, not the author’s. If your go-to phrasings, speech quirks, or favorite words exist across multiple characters, that’s a bit like the author waving hello between the lines. (Hint: the author should not be waving hello from between the lines! Talk about a distraction from the story!) Instead, examine how different voices can come to light, how different speech patterns, verb styles, sentence structures, energy levels, and more can be captured so your readers won’t even need dialogue tags to clarify who any given speaker might be. Maybe someone speaks in fragments. Maybe someone is prone to finishing everyone else’s sentences. Maybe someone substitutes out swear words for hilarious nonsense. It’s all up to you.
Human conversation seems so simple, yet dialogue is more than speech; it’s elevated speech. If you include dialogue within your book, it needs to serve a purpose for the greater story, and characterization can be a driving force throughout the whole.
After a first draft, characters often remain only skeletons, but it’s in the editing where you can add flesh onto their bones, enabling them to truly come alive for your readers.
You don’t want your protagonist just to be “a guy” or “a girl” or “a soldier” or “a ghost” or whomever they may superficially be. You want them to be as vivid on the page as a loved one. It’s in pushing yourself further as a writer and as an editor that your characters take on lives in your readers’ imaginations. And isn’t that the whole point of what we do?
You’ve got this, writers.