Charting Distinct Characters

October 2020 Fiction

Many great characters have a defining trait: something that makes them uniquely them, like a manner of speech, an attitude, or a physical trait.

Unique characters are also great when they’re contrast against each other, like a straight-laced hero vs. a witty comedian; a shy introvert vs. an boisterous extravert; a pacifist vs. a warmonger.

To keep my characters distinct, I invented a visual system that shows variation between people on two ranges. Here’s an example:

This chart shows behavior (assertive to passive) along the X axis, and their attitude (pessimistic to optimistic) along the Y axis. These are ranges, not absolutes. Alice is very outgoing and upbeat in the upper left corner, while Bob is pessimistic — but not the least passive.

Not every chart uses the same criteria. We could replace “optimistic/pessimistic” with “specialist/generalist” or “funny/serious.” But the best results come with a range of opinions on one axis, and behaviors or actions on the other.

The important thing is that each character occupies a different quadrant of the chart. Distinct traits make them unique.

We can also use the chart to keep characters in-character. For example, we know that if Alice or Diego say, “it’s hopeless, we’ll never win,” then they’re acting out of character. Anyone high on the chart — the optimist end of things — is more inclined to declare, “we’re gonna win the day.”

For the same reason, Alice and Geetha are more likely to take action than Bob and Diego, who are towards the passive side of the chart.

Character differences

Beyond keeping them in-character, charts also help us make sure they stand out from each other. When everyone clusters together, they’re less distinct. They tend to agree. That can lead to less conflict and less interest.

Here, Kael might be more impulsive than most, but almost every character is similar. Abrianna is the only outlier. It’s possible to make each interesting on their own, but they’re less likely to stand apart in readers’ minds when they all act similarly.

There are several ways to address this.

  • Move someone to a different quadrant. Brennan, for example, could become emotional and impulsive. Start with minor characters, who are usually easier to adjust.
  • Invent a character. While I don’t recommend creating people for the sake of filling quadrants, doing so will throw the others into relief.
  • Combine two characters. If two (or more) people are so similar that they’re redundant, then removing one. Can the plot still work? Simpler is often more straightforward — and less confusing.
  • Leave it alone. These charts are guides, not mandates. It’s possible to write a story in which everyone thinks or acts the same … but characters who always agree are more likely to bore readers.

Charting character arcs

People who change over the course of a story won’t stay in the same quadrants, so a chart can show their progression over time. As a bonus, this can also help chart the plot.

Sam and Calle begin with similar views on the life. Both would start relatively naïve, although Sam would be slightly more aware of the world. As the plot advances, both will become more worldly. But while Sam will embrace the world and expand his horizons, Calle’s views will solidify. Her increasingly judgmental attitude will contrast well against Sam’s, ratcheting up the tension.

Tension between characters is greatest (and most interesting) when the characters are furthest apart. Charts help us figure out when this would occur in the story.

Brooke and Zelda begin arrogant and depressed. According to her arc, Brooke will become hopeful and begin to act selflessly; Zelda will become selfless before finding hope. Although their stories end near the same point, how they got there is enough to keep readers engaged.

Making your own character contrast chart

Making these charts is easy. Start by getting some paper or digital tool of your choice.

Next, choose a contrast for the first axis. These can reflect the type of story you’re telling, but that’s not required if you’re pantsing the plot. I suggest starting with an attitude about life or the world, such as:

  • Naïve to worldly
  • Jaded to believer
  • Cruel to kind
  • Straight-laced to humorous
  • Uptight to casual
  • Angry to calm
  • Thinking to feeling

If one axis shows their emotions, the other should show their behavior.

  • Passive to assertive
  • Thoughtful to impulsive
  • Careless to considerate
  • Extravagant to frugal
  • Irresponsible to responsible
  • Indirect to direct

But you don’t have to use the axes for action and optional. Both axes could be attitudes, if that best suits your needs.

After you’ve chosen your ranges, draw lines on your paper with the appropriate labels.

If you already have characters, place them on the chart to see how well they stand apart. If you don’t have characters (or if you want to fill an empty quadrant), then invent characters based on what the chart suggests.

If most of your characters fall in the same space, consider spreading them out or consolidating several nearly-identical people. But remember that’s a suggestion. Not every quadrant needs filling.

You might also decide that the labels don’t work, and decide to change the ranges later. That’s fine.

Because in the end, this tool just helps you answer a basic question: are your characters distinct enough for readers to tell apart?