I’d say one of the hardest things for me to learn as a writer, especially when I was younger, was learning how to give each character their own distinct voice. By this, I mean letting each character sound unique. [Let’s just say that a lot of my high school-era writing sounded like a lot of Jonc clones spewing bad puns, whining about how life sucks, and making obscure music references. It makes for extremely embarrassing and painful reading…]
I learned to do this in different ways over the years. During my film college years I paid attention to differences between characters in the numerous movies I had to watch for assignments. In the mid to late 90s and into the 00s I became a voracious reader, not just of fiction but comic books and manga. Nowadays I keep my eyes and ears open for even more unique voices out there.
It becomes a focus on how the author or director wishes to let the story unfold. There’s often a reason why this character is written the way they are, and why they act the way they do. It’s easy to fall into safe character tropes. They’re not inherently bad, but I try not to rely on them too often, as I feel that makes for samey characters and stories, and I don’t write those very well at all.
My personal way to get around this is often to go beyond the tropes and make them unique. Twist them a bit. Instead of the Disheveled Investigator nursing a hangover and trying to find out why no one’s talking about a murder, turn it on its head: Disheveled Investigator is stone cold sober for personal reasons that tie in with a previous case, and the murder is being covered up by a rival investigator who’s a raging alcoholic and also his best friend. Et voilà, unique characters and a nifty use of conflict for your plot!
I’ve also made it a point to read a lot of different writers — not just in terms of gender, but in race. I’ve long had a love for Japanese literature, and that’s expanded to Latinx, Chinese, and more recently, Arabic/Middle Eastern literature as well. I love to witness how a story unfolds in different cultures; why they unfold the way they do, the tropes they use in their own culture, and so on. It gives me grist for the mill. [I should probably state here that I’m not purposely appropriating here; I’m paying attention to how other characters in other cultures work within the context of the story, and contemplating if this is the kind of character I could write myself.] There is indeed a little bit of Method Acting involved, at least for me. I like to get inside each of my characters’ heads a bit to learn how they tick. And I learn a little bit in the process!
This process of learning how to write other voices other than your own can be tricky, but with time and practice, you’ll eventually get it.