“You’re playing a grizzled veteran detective? But I’m playing a grizzled veteran detective!?!”
Simple stereotypes are great starting points for character creation, but it also means it’s super-easy for two players to wind up with character concepts that look identical. Increase those odds by an order of magnitude in class-based rule systems (“but I’m playing a paladin!”).
Standard reaction: quiet gnashing of teeth, followed by someone feeling slighted and deciding to play something different. Or worse, both players muddle forward but feel like they’re playing clones. Bad vibes at the table.
Here’s a better solution: let both players keep their concept, but find a wedge issue that differentiates them.
Brainstorm for a moment and think of two alternatives that fit the stereotype but are basically opposites. Ask the players if that is the difference between their characters. What you’re looking for is a case where the players pick opposing sides or traits — that becomes the thing that clearly tells them apart.
Two veteran detectives? Is one burned out and the other grimly determined? Does one think the legal system is broken and the other think most people are just scum (system at fault vs humanity at fault).
Two wizards? Does one want to unearth ancient secrets while the other wants to invent new arcane techniques (archaeology vs invention). Is one a member of a magical guild, brotherhood or tradition while the other is an isolated loner or self-taught magi? Is one young and the other old?
Two hotshot pilots? Is one looking for fame and the other thrills? Is one well-trained and the other a natural? Is one precise and the other flying by instinct? (yes, Iceman vs Maverick)
If you throw out an idea for a wedge issue and neither player cares or both come down on the same side, that’s not your wedge. Forget it and suggest another. Make sure the players know you are fishing for differences and they’ll start coming up with ideas of their own. It’s a negotiation, so let it play itself out. If you’re a player and find yourself caught at a table with a clone, feel free to do the same thing: engage the other player and work out a wedge issue.
You’ll know you’ve hit the spot when both players light up and embrace the idea. A good wedge may shed light on the character they envisioned in the first place or at least move in a direction they really like.
Any time you’re starting from a stereotype (and at some level you always do) it’s a given that your character is going to turn out to be more than that stereotype. The character is going to gain depth and individuality and eventually be a unique snowflake, but that takes time. Finding a wedge issue is just a way of speeding up the process.
A good wedge often becomes the relationship between the once-similar characters. It gives them a sharp difference out of the gate, something to bicker about or call each other on. It gives them something to talk about, which is the best thing you can have between two characters when a game starts (seriously, go read Instant Rivalry and Instant Consensus). Those players understand each other’s characters from square one.
Taking it a step farther, a party works best when the characters are in agreement about one large thing (why they are together or what they are doing) and disagree about lots of secondary things (differences in personality). Too much agreement on the little things leads to a boring vanilla party: no personality, no tension. Too much disagreement on the big thing prevents it from being a party.
Note: I said party. Some games don’t have or need the concept of a party because the characters are in conflict instead of cooperating. Those characters can and should disagree about all sorts of things, particularly what they want to have happen, the big goals. That’s the opposite case: in that situation agreement about the main goal kills the game because there is no conflict.
Want a challenge next time you are making characters? Play very, very similar stereotypes.
Big character differences are child’s play. Anyone can play the elf differently from the dwarf. It takes fine detail to make two similar character concepts but play them with sharp contrast. It makes you pay attention to who they are as people, instead of their race, class or adjectives.