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:
- 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, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.