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.
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.
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?
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!