3 Ways to Differentiate Your Characters

We’ve invited Resident Writing Coach Sacha Black to give us an extra dose of wisdom as she’s just released a new book that I think will help a lot of writers: Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences. This guide looks at the sentence-level improvements, which are SO important. A few years back I attended a Margie Lawson retreat to level up my sentence description. It was a great help so I know Sacha’s new guide will be right up my alley!

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I often hear writers worrying that their characters all sound the same. The worry is either over description or dialogue. Today, I’ve got three tips to help you differentiate your characters. They come from my new book The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences which is jam-packed full of tips to help you improve your story and craft at the sentence level. 

There are lots of ways you can differentiate your characters at the sentence level, but three of my favorites are: impact, details, and dialogue.

1 – Impact Over Sight

What makes a new character more memorable than their physical description is how they make your protagonist feel. 

Forget eye color and clothing. Yes, those things are important, and yes, you probably need to describe them at an early opportunity because it creates a picture of the character, but they don’t tell you about that character. They don’t give the reader anything memorable to take away or think about after they’ve put the book down. 

If a character comes into the scene and makes the protagonist feel jealous or afraid or hot under the neck, then your reader is more likely to remember them because they’ve had an effect on the hero. They’ve done something.

Another trick is to have your protagonist notice the new character having an impact on another character. When you describe this impact, it deepens both character’s personalities.

Whenever it’s time to describe a new character, I ask myself a key question:

When the character leaves the scene, what one thing do I want the reader to feel about them?

2 – Details Matter

Another way to create differentiation is to ensure your protagonist notices the unusual details…ones no other character would. This creates something unique to your hero or heroine and also shows readers what’s important to them. 

If, for example, you have a character who’s super empathetic, they’re more likely to notice small body language changes, emotions, and subtleties in human nature that others miss. Knowing this will help you create more authentic actions, thoughts and descriptions. The protagonist’s empathetic side will be shown through your word choices, be present in their dialogue, and flavor their observations about other people.

For example, if we were in an angry character’s POV, their observation might read like this:

She was short, stocky I guess. Full of attitude.

Whereas an empathetic character’s POV observation might read like this:

She was short, and at first glance, you’d think she was standoffish. But when you looked closer, there was an ache in her gaze, as if she was protecting herself from old pain.

This not only deepens your protagonist in the eyes of the reader, it also deepens the character being observed, too.

3 Differentiated Dialogue 

Of all the character worries I hear, differentiating a character’s dialogue is the biggest. But there are a stack of ways you can do this. 

Just like the details a character notices, the most important factor in differentiating dialogue is understanding your character’s personality. 

If for example, you have a stuffy professor, they’re likely to use long stuffy words in their conversations. Words like: 

  • Furthermore
  • In addition
  • The definitive conclusion
  • That’s unsubstantiated

But if your character is a gang member, then they’re unlikely to use the same vocabulary. Instead, they might use slang words or gang-specific words that might not have a meaning in common language.

To help keep you on track with these differences, create mini vocabulary lists for your characters with the most distinctive personalities. It will be a refresher and help you bring out their true voice every time you write their dialogue.

Don’t forget to look at the rhythm and flow of your character’s dialogue, too. The professor, for example, might use longer, more flowing sentences—especially if he’s pompous and likes the sound of his voice. You could edit his dialogue to have longer sentences, use more commas and more words than necessary. Though a word of caution here, reading dialogue like that all the time would be hard going for a reader. It only takes a sprinkling of personality to create the effect you’re after.

Likewise, the gang member might use shorter, sharper sentences with fewer words, if you reflect that right down at the punctuation level, you’ll augment their personality and deepen their characterisation. 

So that’s quick three ways you can differentiate your characters. The most important thing you can do is to truly know your character. Who are they and what do they value? Once you know that, you can let it influence your sentence-level choices. If you enjoyed these tips, you can get lots more in my new book, The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences.

Angela here again. If you don’t already know, Sacha also has a podcast (The Rebel Author Podcast, check it out–it’s fantastic) and I see she’s created a video introduction of her book. It gives you a great glimpse at what you’ll learn, so I thought I’d add it here:

I’ll be gifting someone who comments a e-copy of Anatomy of Prose, so chime in with your biggest sentence-level struggle below!


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Description, Dialogue, Editing Tips, Emotion, Focus, Pacing, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to 3 Ways to Differentiate Your Characters

  1. Cheri Bradley says:

    I am just completing my first novel and I use Pro Writing Aid to help me edit. The problem is that it calls many things I write sticky or slow paced, even the dialogue. For instance, your second sample description of a character would probably be flagged as slow paced. How do I know which PWA advice to accept and which to ignore? I love your ideas about describing characters through the effects they have on the PVO! Thanks so much for the tips!

  2. I love that first tip. Definitely something I want to work at incorporating. First impressions really are more about feeling than what we see!

    Congratulations on the new book!

  3. I’m an author and editor. I will pass this article on to my followers. Fingers crossed that I get an e-book!

  4. Sacha Black says:

    Thank you so much for letting me join you today, I really appreciate it, and the support for the launch :). If I haven’t told you enough, you guys are the actual best.

  5. An says:

    Great tips! Thanks a lot for sharing.

    My biggest sentence-level struggle I think is on deciding the right length of each sentence and the right amount of information I should give within them. I want to learn to find the balance I’m looking for.

    • Sacha Black says:

      It’s definitely a tricky one but the beauty of writing is there are no rules. Experimentation is key to finding the balance you personally prefer.

  6. A.C. Nixon says:

    Great post.

    Thanks for writing a sentence level craft book. There aren’t enough that show you how to make our sentences sing.

    My biggest prose struggle is that I tend to be an under writer, probably because I truly enjoy dialogue. So my descriptions tend to be sparse.

  7. Jay Hicks says:

    I could run a whole list. I get my head around one sneaky habit, and discover another. And crit partners don’t always pick up the same issues.

    It’s amazing (but kind of fun) that we don’t know what we don’t know until we know…

    • Sacha Black says:

      Right? I love that discovery process. Also keeps me on my toes and reminds me to stay a student for life. Keep learning, keep growing your craft.

  8. Sally Shupe says:

    Great post! I struggle with dialogue tags all sounding the same. Love this tips about making characters appear different!

    • Sacha Black says:

      Ahh, and yet, the words “said” and “says” are magical. Readers don’t see them in the same way they see “she whispered” or any other type of tag. It’s better, on balance, to stick with said where possible as it’s a word readers gloss over. 🙂 Glad you like the tip. Thank you for reading.

  9. Tamara Meyers says:

    I feel like my male and female characters sound too much alike and guys just don’t use the same words or phrasing a gal would. Since I have all daughters, I guess I need to eavesdrop on their male friend’s conversations.

    • Sacha Black says:

      Definitely eaves drop. Also read books with male protagonists and written by men. Observe the dialogue and see if you can spot any linguistic patterns.

  10. Lynnette Jalufka says:

    Good tips. I already learned the hard way about creating vocabulary lists for my characters, as as length of sentences and if they use contractions.

  11. This was very helpful. Differentiating characters is something we all struggle with.
    Thanks, Angela.

  12. Marcia says:

    When I’m critiquing other’s work, I’m always looking for suggestions to help my authors communicate what a non POV character is thinking–why they do something. I’d love to read the Anatomy of Prose.

  13. Hi Sacha,

    I often worry all my characters sound the same. I’ve been trying to focus on this more, and your post has been helpful.

    Thanks for this post, and congratulations on The Anatomy of Prose. It sounds like something I need!

  14. Elise says:

    Very useful post! I always find it difficult to even remember to describe the POV character. Once I realize I’ve left a blank slate, I worry about putting information too soon and bogging down the opening. Then I worry about putting something in too late, and having the reader think, “Red hair? She has red hair? Not to me, she doesn’t! Couldn’t you have let me know that sooner?”

    • Sacha Black says:

      I understand that worry completely. It’s always tricky to strike the right character description balance.

  15. Lausanne Carpenter says:

    Great tips! Thanks! #1 is especially useful – not heard it quite that way before so will make a big note of that one. I want to work past the obvious (visual) and learn to write with the gut.

    My sentence-level struggle is a repeated pattern: “__someone did this____, __this___, and __this___.” Ugh. Nothing wrong with it per se. I just see it everywhere in my text.

    • Sacha Black says:

      I don’t think we every truly get rid of all our crutches in our prose, but KNOWING what they are is the best position to be in. If you know what you’re doing then you can at least fix it 🙂

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