Common Pitfalls: Same-Character Syndrome

Being a writer is hard work (that’s obvious). With all of the characters you have to make, histories to enumerate, places to detail, it can get pretty–how shall I say this–uniform? That’s not the right word. Let’s just say that when you’ve got a hundred million details to make up a story, things start to run together.

This is probably a phenomenon that you have observed yourself. When the similarities between two places, two characters, two objects, or two histories begin to multiply, there is a real danger of losing the identity of one to the other. Effectively, two things or people become one–not a very promising situation.

In fact, I can probably tell you how the sticky mess started: you wanted to make a story, and (like any good author) you drew on your favorite fictions to help make characters. Some of your characters very closely draw on their progenitors, taking all details but the name. While there is nothing wrong with this per se (of course, we all eventually grow out of following someone else’s story as an outline) it plants the seeds that would later become SCS (Same-Character Syndrome…I love my acronyms!).

As you branched out into more characters, maybe even going so far as to create another, completely different book, there would eventually be subtle details between some of your creations (Most often your characters, which is the problem we’re addressing here), blurring the distinctions between who’s who.

The details about two or three different characters begin to run together, like mixed paint. They begin to share spoken mannerisms, like accents. Previously, they had their defining details, but SCS steps in, takes an eraser, and starts to blur the lines. The reader eventually comes to see two or three character as one character, and concludes with dismal familiarity that this (these) character(s) is extremely annoying–and ineffectual.

Such is something you never want. The cure to this problem, however, is not to entirely rework the characters, placing them as far from each other as you can. In any story, there will be similarities between characters. Conversely, it takes a thread of the needle to distinguish between similar and melded characters.

You don’t want to increase the number of details that separate two or three individuals: instead, emphasize the one or two differences between them. Say Tim and Jack are both bikers of opposite biker gangs. SCS is about to strike, when you carefully tell the reader that Tim is a quiet, well-spoken teen in a hoodie who ferries messages between the two gangs, and Jack, by contrast, is a rough, violent, muscular 37-year-old with an eyepatch and a flame job on his bike. If you didn’t emphasize these details, you could have easily fallen prey to SCS.

It would be a mistake to make Jack or Tim a police officer, a public school student, or a bartender. It would be even more of a mistake to make them less of a character, or just write them out of the story altogether. Remember: the ideas that occur to you while you’re writing are generally far better than one you get while you’re rewriting. Once a story emerges from the chaotic nothingness that preceded it, the ideas start to get less original.

Avoid SCS at all costs. It is a direct route to boring writing, discouragement, and despair. This problem is so widespread that (in my opinion) it is distressingly common. If you find this problem in your own work, don’t panic: just fix your problems.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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