I naturally speak with one voice. If pressed, I can speak with a second, more professional voice; the one that presents concepts to advertising clients or interviews corporate executives for a magazine. But most of the time, I speak with one voice that uses a vocabulary and attitude established over my many decades of life.
I think this is largely the case for everyone, which is why it is not surprising that people tend to write stories with a series characters that can largely sound the same. The protagonist is typically quite distinct. The antagonist is often distinct. But after that, I don’t know that I could tell who was speaking if I didn’t read the names.
These secondary characters, by their very nature, are not our focus as writers, so they tend to have the least developed back stories even in our heads. Other than age or gender, what makes the paperboy different from the local sheriff from the school teacher?
The same thing that makes you different from me. Our experiences, past and present.
One of the tricks for informing a character that I learned in improv was to endow a character with a trait that only you as the performer knew, and ideally a trait that had absolutely nothing to do with the scene that was developing.
In one exercise, I decided that my character had a bad right ankle, so that every time I took a step, my ankle would cause me pain. I didn’t hobble or verbally express the pain with either an “Ow” or “Would you slow down, my ankle hurts”.
The pain was expressed, however, in how my character responded to his environment and the other characters in the scene. What might have been a middle-of-the-road character suddenly became a terse character, someone in a hurry to get things over with, quick to anger or frustrate, less apt to engage in activities.
The bonus aspect of the exercise, for me, was that my fellow improv performers quickly got and responded to my character, but when pressed, could not exactly say why I behaved as I did.
Now change that ankle pain to a foot orgasm (read about it this week online) and see where that character would go (probably jogging).
The sore ankle had no impact on what role the character played in the scene, but more in HOW that character performed that role. And this made the character stand out from all of the others.
I go back to this exercise often, when I find myself creating secondary or tertiary characters that aren’t differentiated from the background. A little something to make them stand out, however briefly, in their scene.
If you find yourself stuck, give it a shot. What could it hurt, other than possibly your ankle?
(Image is property of owners and is used here without permission, because it makes me happy/indifferent/snarky/hot.)