How Characters Can “Taste” the Same

I was thinking about something I said in my last post, and it caught in my brain a little. Namely, that all of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely/Ink Exchange characters feel the same. First I started wondering how someone would argue the point with me. That would invariably involved that person saying something like:

“Aislinn grew up able to see fairies, and she’s more conservative about sex than Leslie.”

And that kind of thing. It’s not wrong. …I actually had a lot of trouble coming up with even that much of a “defence” for the characters. It does not help that those two girls’ opinions on sex are largely informed. They also end up acting pretty much the same when sex actually comes up, never mind what either of them says or thinks to the reader.

This helped me a bit along my thought process of this issue. When characters are nominally different, but a wary reader sees no redeeming distinction. It happens more in an isolated work (All of the characters in this book are the same!) than across works (Ranma and Inuyasha are the same guy!), and that helps in definition too.

It’s not just the name, the basic background, or even the personality as the author has explained it. These characters have the same “taste”. Think about two characters from something everyone is supposed to have read. Say… Bilbo Baggins and Humbert Humbert. They’re fairly singular within their books. And they are not remotely similar, beyond being male.

Bilbo is:

  • Fussy
  • Eager
  • Curious

Humbert Humbert is:

  • Poetic
  • Self-deluding
  • Well-educated

All of these show through in their actions, motivations, and dialogue. That is bolded because I think dialogue is what’s most often going wrong with casts turning out entirely alike.

Dialogue is where a lot of characters in modern fiction espouse their views (be they political or simple food preferences), and dialogue is where they most often contradict what the narrative wants readers to believe. It’s also a noted difficulty, particularly in genre fiction. If the characters are all talking the same way, then how varied do they really look?

I have heard it said from a gushing fan that Joss Whedon has a limited amount of character voices and yet he manages to make all of his characters distinct and nuanced. I could not possibly disagree more fiercely. Try what I call the Whedon Character Litmus Test. Think of a line written by Joss Whedon for an original character (nothing in the Avengers film, for example) and see if you can imagine any of his characters not saying it. Be honest. I’ve seriously heard someone try this test and insist that he had found a line, when everyone else disagreed with him. And it doesn’t count if they wouldn’t say it because of the setting.

On another note, having a different motivation for the same trait is not enough variation. For example:

Aislinn:

  • Nervous
    • …because she has grown up seeing fairies and knowing them to be dangerous
  • Reluctant to date
    • …because she is afraid of losing a friend

Leslie:

  • Nervous
    • …because she lives with a drunk dad and druggie brother
  • Reluctant to date
    • …because the guy she likes is made off-limits by Aislinn

Remove those reasons and you still have the same list. And I only chose two because it’s not that easy to code nested unordered lists in the WordPress Editor.

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