“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

4 Lessons from Orphan Black on Character Development

Characters are one of the most important elements of any story. And character development can be challenging to get right.

Characters are critical for drawing readers into a story. They should also be the force that pushes your plot forward.

They can make your readers cry, and even feel like a real friend. A weak one can deflate an entire book like a leaky air mattress.

There are endless examples of compelling characters out there from the talented authors who came before us. But I can’t think of a better example of how to differentiate characters than BBC’s spectacular Orphan Black.

4 lessons for character development from orphan black

Based on the premise of a group of clones discovering what was done to them, actress Tatiana Maslany brilliantly portrays a slew of wildly distinct characters who all have the same DNA.

In practice, this means that every one of the main characters has the same face. And just to up the ante, there are several scenes where one of the clones has to impersonate another. In short, characterization has never been more critical.

But the show pulls it off so well it’s easy to forget that all clones are the actually all the same actress. Here are four pillars behind the show’s success that you can use in your own writing for stronger characters, too:

(Extremely minor spoilers ahead.)

What Writers Can Learn from Orphan Black

There are many lessons writers can learn from this genius show. However, I believe the following concepts are ket to mastering character development.

1. Physical traits

In Orphan Black, creating a distinct look for each clone is important on a practical level to help viewers know who’s who. But more than that, as with any character, these physical differences reflect who the character is.

For example, Cosima’s dreadlocks are a reflection of her laid-back hippie approach to the world; Rachel’s sharp bob an indication of her corporate status as a CEO, as well as her desire to maintain tight control over every aspect of her life.

Don’t create distinct physical traits for your character just for the sake of distinction. Start with the core of your character and then ask, how do those core traits influence the character’s physical appearance?

2. Speaking patterns

In a memorable moment in season 3, hippie scientist Cosima must impersonate uptight soccer mom Alison at a public event. Rushing through a crowd, Cosima bumps into someone and calls out, “Sorry, dude.”

Viewers immediately cringe, knowing she’s just tipped off anyone paying attention that there is something off about Alison, because Alison would never say “dude.” This isn’t ever called out explicitly as a difference between the characters, but each is so clearly defined and their speaking patterns are deeply ingrained.

How do you do create this strong kind of voice for your characters? Her voice must be a consistent reflection of who she is. Start at your character’s core, then consider how those factors—education, passions, beliefs, history—influence how she talks.

3. Mannerisms

Naïve clone Krystal the manicurist moves in a traditionally feminine way. Optimistic and trusting, she shares her life story with any client who walks in the door, wears her heart on her sleeve, and displays emotion with typical Valley Girl-isms like fanning her face with her hands.

Compare that to all-business, no-nonsense Rachel, who has learned to be guarded in the vicious corporate world she inhabits. Rachel maintains a stoic expression at all times and keeps her body very still, upholding a stiff poker face and hiding what she thinks at all times.

How does your character move? His physical demeanor can reveal a lot about him.

4. Personal history

If you pick and choose your facts, clones Helena and Sara could look similar on paper—they’re both tough as nails and thrive on chaos; they’re both great with kids; and despite limited education, their natural intelligence makes them extremely resourceful. And yet these characters are extremely different people. A lot of this comes down to their personal histories.

Helena spent most of her life as the captive of an abusive cult in Ukraine, which drove her sanity to the brink. Meanwhile Sara found relative stability in London’s foster system, though it wasn’t without its own challenges. These experiences shaped them into completely different people.

It’s a universal truth that we are shaped by our life experiences. How did your character’s history shape who he is?

Everything is Characterization

When it really boils down to it, everything about your character is an opportunity to build characterization. Waste no opportunity to reinforce something about who your character is. The consistency and dimension this establishes will take your character from ink on the page into a living, breathing person.

Do you watch orphan black? What have you learned about writing from it?

PRACTICE

Choose one of the elements of character listed in this post, and then explore your character’s use of this element. Write a passage that uses this element to reveal something about your character to readers. Then, share that passage in the comments!

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

  • Gary G Little

    I don’t like Orphan Black. To be truthful, I’ve never watched it, probably never will. It is just no longer my genre. I have found most dramatic TV that is offered today is bland, boring, and nothing but formulaic copy cat drivel of something in the past. My TV has turned to Science, History, Smithsonian, or National Geographic. Or I’ll kill aliens on HALO 4. So, I will never watch OB, not even to find character development.

    I do find cinematic character development. I look to the character played by Barry Fitzgerald in the movie The Quiet Man. I saw that movie again after I started writing here, and my jaw dropped. Fitzgerald, by that time having been a well known character actor for decades, takes the character of Michaleen and does something magical. Maurice Walsh wrote a delightful character, but Fitzgerald inflates, brings that character to life, puts a hitch in Michaleens get-a-long.

    Now THAT is character development.

    • Alan Northcott

      Interesting to not like something you’ve never watched. I don’t think you’d find Orphan Black bland and formulaic, but that’s your prerogative.

      • Gary G Little

        Let’s define “never watched.” I have seen the trailers, I can not avoid the trailers, nor do I try to avoid the trailers. But, I have as yet to see anything in the trailers that interests me, hence I have never watched an episode. Yes I determined I did not like, was not interested, shrugged my shoulders and said “seen that, read that, heard that” all from the trailers. I have been reading science fiction since the very first Heinlein book I read in 1955., and have watched nearly all the TV sci-fi.

        Nearly, because all of the stuff released in the past five years is bland and formulaic. Mostly I have gotten to where I don’t like series, anything. I started to watch “Expanse”, muttered bullshit when every one was running around in 1 G … On a space station, in orbit, so I went to a TED Talk. Admittedly, “Expanse” was saddled with a HUGE disadvantage; it was shown right after Arthur Clarkes “Childhoods End.” From great story telling to bland, formulaic drivel, with everyone running around in one G because the camera angles are easier and cheaper. I bet any alien will probably speak perfect Queen’s English.

        Star Wars is the epitome of formulaic and is very short on strong story. Sorry, but I watched The Searchers with John Wayne and Jeff Hunter in the 50’s and bottom line that’s all Star War’s story is. I watch Star Wars for the glitter, the eye candy, oh yeah and a medium popcorn.

        I read “The Martian”, listened to the audio book twice, and will see the movie again, with or without the popcorn, because like Clarke, Weir tells a great story, even though it is Robinson Crusoe revisited.

  • Emily,

    An interesting post about characterization, but like Gary G. Little, I’ve never seen Orphan Black and probably will not, since I’ve not watched TV of any kind regularly since converter boxes became necessary.

    Also like Gary, I’ve found my drama in other places. For me, it’s classic movies. The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart is a big favorite, but so are the Thin Man movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Those movies came so close on the heels of the silent movies that a lot of character is developed in mannerisms, gestures, and expressions.

    However, that takes nothing from your points on developing character. You’ve presented a valuable lesson in developing characters that truly stand out and I plan to work on some of them when I begin my next writing project.

    Thanks!

  • Gina Davis

    I too have not seen Orphan Black, however, as I ponder the characters and writing about a character, I ponder this one character I want to develop for a skit I plan to do. I have put it off because I don’t know where to begin and I also want to think about the purpose of the portrayal.
    One of the things discussed was the reason behind the characters. I plan to create one. love the idea. The last time I did something like that, I was in high school, a hundred years ago.

  • kathunsworth

    Hi Emily I am constantly amazed by this show and the fact I forget it’s one actress. I write a brief history for my characters in stories because I am in search of why they do the things they do, especially my villains. I get angry if I watch a movie or read a book where the villain has no reason to be so wicked. Thanks for the great tips.
    Kath

  • Shawn Spjut

    One of the most brilliant shows I’ve seen in years. Got hook from the start. Tatiana Maslany is spectacular in her ability to give the audience such completely different characters. My favorites are Allison and Helena. But let’s not forget the writers, who thought up the idea and keep the story line going season after season.

  • Danielle K. Girl

    Amazing show, incredible actress. And the writing extends from great characterisation into an amazing storyline. I don’t think I’ve disliked a single episode and it just seems to be getting better and better. Hope they can keep it up! To look at the characters on paper, they almost seem cliched and formulaic but it doesn’t translate that way on screen – you find yourself investing in all of them, including the characters beyond Tatiana’s list. Thanks for the article. 🙂

  • allyn211

    I have watched and enjoyed Orphan Black as well, and Tatiana does the job so well that I also forget it’s one person playing many.

  • Well, I confess that I have not idea what Orphan Black is, but this post was still full of great advice. A strong main character can turn a poorly plotted novel into a masterpiece. Likewise, a poorly developed main character can take the best plot and turn it into trash.

  • Joël Le Chanu

    I loved Orphan Black since the first episode. The first season seem so wild, launching new fact & enigma & I admit I was scared to not have the answer at the end. But like a blackhole sarah attract all lead for open a great last episode. Season two is very différent but open the story of the other characters. And Season 3 … Damn. Once more different. I waiting for the fourth that I can only watch in DVD because I’m French. Sad said. A great paper on characters. I already know some point because I do Roleplaying at one time. And characterization is a key in it (At a Game Master it’s even more true). And when I was writing I focus of the five sens. Smell, Taste, Hearing, Touch, sight. But there I admit sometime I forgot the character for a silly envy. Like a tattoo but without thinking at why I or her wanted the tattoo at one point of his or her past history. For now my creativity & my imaginary word are sink.

  • EndlessExposition

    Well this is a timely prompt for me! I’ve been working lately on prose character development exercises to help me get a better grasp on the characters of a sci-fi screenplay I’m working on. They’re short pieces that explore a few different elements of character that you went into. Here’s the exercise for my main character. As always, reviews are greatly appreciated!

    Kaya

    Against her will, she still had some military bearing about her – she walked with the purposeful stride and tight, swinging arms of a soldier; when she stood still it was in parade rest. There were also still traces of the wealthy magnate’s daughter – the Parisian accent, the limp wristed gestures, the instinctual brushing of imaginary lint off her clothes. Whenever she passed a reflective surface, she always made an imperceptible turn of her head to look at herself, and followed it up with an equally slight nod of approval.

    She was made up of pieces of people – the sergeant, the socialite. The rake was another. She had developed a certain look, a liquid, burning gaze that practically melted clothes off. Combined strategically with carefully cultivated charm and wit, she had gained a reputation as the woman’s woman. It was getting to the point where her belt didn’t have any more room for notches, though she seldom enjoyed acquiring them. Sex was a habit, like brushing her teeth.

    The captain was her newest role. She slipped back into wielding authority easily, and it frightened her. Barking orders and demanding respect still felt good, still had that addictive rush that made her feel invincible. What scared her most was when she forgot to be self-aware about it. The nightmares were becoming frequent again, and she woke
    up nearly every night screaming into the pillow, images of fire and blood still vivid behind her eyes. She had tried praying a few times, recalling the golden icon of the Virgin Mary her father kept in his study. But she always ended up looking out the window, and faced with the vast, unbound emptiness around the Perseus, her prayers just slipped away.

    The Catholic was a role she was out of practice with.

    She was made up of pieces of people, and slipped into new skins with the adeptness of any other snake. But what she came to realize, after several months of living in the incomprehensible limitlessness of space, was that being all things to all people meant that she was absolutely nothing to herself.

    • Matt O’Berski

      Love your word choices throughout! I can so easily see Kaya barking order and confidently striding around town. Incredible way to end it, and reminiscent of the the movie Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts, who likes whatever kind of egg the man she’s marrying likes. Nice work!

    • LilianGardner

      I was on the look out for a good description of a character, and you provided me with a detailed ‘view ‘ of Kaya.
      Thanks for sharing.

    • 709writer

      Very thoughtful piece. Kind of sad at the end, too. You really got into Kaya’s head and made me feel for her. Good work!

  • Matt O’Berski

    This is a continuation of a character I developed last year for a prompt.

    It didn’t take me long to get a nickname: Dennis the menace.
    The teachers called me it. To my face. When they heard they were going to have
    me in class the following year, some of them quit.

    I made teachers quit.
    They’re lucky.

    It always seems like my teachers are always white. Why can’t
    they get me teachers that are like me? Teachers that like me? Teachers that I
    don’t worry are going to treat me as a suspect the moment I walk into their
    room?

    It’s been three years and still the memory of that day
    haunts me. It’s what’s making me haunt everyone around me. I wish they could
    understand me. I wish they could stand me.

    I walk in to my freshman year and immediately hear the
    snickers… “Ugh, she’s back again” and “yuck, who let her in?” My clenched hands
    can’t be very welcoming to the strangers, but they’re not welcoming me. I’m new
    here. Don’t they realize that? Don’t they realize that I have nothing. That
    everything was torn from me that day? It doesn’t matter. If they want to call
    me a menace then I can live up to that. I can control that. I’m good at that.

    I know how to dress the part, how to do my hair all crazy
    and to wear clothes they think are disgusting. Yeah it takes work, work they
    think I’m not putting in. I control this because every little bit of control in
    my life has been ripped out from my fingers, clawed from my heart.

    I remember papi… oh papi… he used to pronounce my name ‘da
    nice’. It made me smile. Thinking back on that memory today is about the only
    thing that can. My jaw is aching and any attempt at even meager smiles is
    replaced with howls.

    My favorite animal is a wolf. He watched a documentary once
    with me about a lone wolf stranded in the forest attempting to find home and
    food and solace amongst the dangers around it. It started out nice, sniffing at
    the ground and howling hellos to the bees. One day it was stung, then after
    being stung it would bite at everything. Now I am that wolf.

    • EndlessExposition

      Great practice! There were places where I had to guess at the events she was referring to in her past, but I assume if this were a longer piece you’d delve into that. A few sentences here and there could be rearranged to flow more smoothly. I love the last paragraph. It’s a very poignant comparison and gives the reader a clear picture of who Denise is and why. Overall, excellent work!

  • LaCresha Lawson

    I absolutely agree about the importance of knowing your characters in a book. We can feel what they feel. And, understand the story a lot more. Thank you very much.

  • Claire CN

    I absolutely love Orphan Black and have often thought in detail about the characters, and the feat that Tatiana Maslany pulls off here. It’s incredible. However this analysis has made me think about it all again… The characterisation really is extraordinary, and as you pointed out, even more so when she has to be one of the clones impersonating another.

    If we can dissect another bit of pop culture, the trajectories of the characters in Breaking Bad is just brilliant as well – Shakespearian, really – pulling on all kinds of empathy and morality strings and watching how they transform and why.

    People say TV’s rubbish – every now and then they’re delightfully wrong!

  • LilianGardner

    I enjoyed your post, Emily, for which many thanks.
    I don’t know a jot about Orphan Black and I feel as if I’ve missed out on something special.
    I’m not clever at pepping up my characters enough so I need to practice until I feel more confident about the people in my stories.

  • Susan W A

    I haven’t done character development before. I mostly write poetry based on life events. Your post is a great introduction and guide with great examples for me to learn from. I will delve into this area of writing to stretch my writing experiences. I’m thinking I will start with “interviewing” a couple characters based on your lists, whether I develop a story or not.
    Thanks!

  • David

    Just wrote this but ran out of time. It’s a start …

    Thomas saw tired, oily eyes. The eyes of a man having too little sleep and his last shot of whiskey too close to falling asleep. Red, tired, filmy, eyes staring back at a man who looked older than his years, felt older than he looked and too young to be either. He
    didn’t care much for that man in the mirror, didn’t remember if he ever had. Thomas
    wondered if he ever would or ever even could stand to look that reflection, his reflection, in the eye. Probably not. After all these years self-doubt – no, self-loathing actually – reigned supreme.

    • EndlessExposition

      I like this! At times the repetition did make reading it a little confusing, but it’s an interesting structure so I wouldn’t make too many changes. I like how focused this piece is. It is short, but it’s very detailed and an intriguing introduction to Thomas. Good work!

      • David

        Endless, thank you for your input.

        Like I said above, I had run out of time to further develop this. And although I hadn’t spent much time on it, I went ahead and posted it because I kind of liked it. Can’t explain it, I just did. The funny thing is, this scene fell into my grey matter this morning before I even read Emily’s post. So when I read her post I knew I should just go ahead and throw it out there. Still, I am happy for any critique because someday I would like to write something of substance by the time I “grow up” … and since I have a son who is applying for grad school, I’m kind of running out of growing-up time … 🙂

  • I am not a TV watcher, but my daughter insisted I watch Orphan Black with her, and I was so impressed with Tatiana Maslany’s ability to make you forget you’re watching the same actress play each of these roles that I was hooked. As a writer, what I’m always impressed with is the character of Helena. Seemingly abhorrent (and certainly crazy) at first, she developed into such a multi-faceted, deep, lovable character. Many, many times I’ve considered her brilliant character development in the writing of my current novel.

  • I am such a big fan of Orphan Black and this article is spot on. I enjoyed watching the episodes so much I never thought of comparing the show to writing. Thanks for this!

  • 709writer

    Julia skated up the sidewalk, weaving through the crowds with ease. The sky was a soft purplish pink in the late afternoon. She smiled. If she could reach the plaza fountain before dark, she could find a good spot to watch the fireworks.

    She darted around a group of children on the sidewalk and pivoted to follow the riverwalk to the plaza fountain.

    She collided with a man. Losing her footing on her skates, she grabbed hold of the man’s jacket to steady herself and he pitched forward, down on top of her.

    A scream burst from her throat as his weight pinned her to the ground. A flashback of Sean holding her down flickered in her mind.

    She pushed out her hands, hurling the man off her with psychic energy.

    “Sorry,” the man said, and he held out his hand to her.

    Julia scrambled to her feet, regained her balance, and shot off in the opposite direction. Vomit lurched into her throat. Black dots peppered her vision, obscuring the sidewalk in front of her.

    Sean’s voice growled in her mind as he pushed her to the floor, all those months ago. “Don’t make one sound.”

    She blocked it out and shut her eyes.

    A horn blared. Her eyes flew open – a city bus was zooming straight for her, it’s brakes squealing. Julia lunged across the street and reached the opposite sidewalk just as the bus flew by.

    Putting a hand to her hammering heart, Julia ducked inside the candle shop, where the soft scent of lavender, vanilla, and apple spice enveloped her. A wood-burning stove carried tiny sparks into the air in the far corner of the room. Other shoppers perused the short aisles of candles on display.

    She still trembled. How could she forget what he had done? How could she erase those memories?

    “Are you okay, sweetie?” a female voice asked behind her.

    Julia spun around, fighting to control her shaking. “I’m fine. Just…” She swallowed and glanced over her shoulder at the shop door. “A car almost hit me.”

    The woman, who was probably in her mid-thirties, smiled, dusted off her green apron, and put an arm around Julia in a brief hug. “There, there, dear,” she said, then looked Julia up and down. “My, you’re young to be out and about during the festival alone. Why don’t you come sit by the fire for a little while.” She indicated the wood-burning stove where two other women sat.

    With one last look toward the shop door, Julia relaxed a little and let the woman lead her away.

    I’d love some feedback on what everyone thinks about how I incorporated Julia’s personal history into the scene. Thanks!