Three ways to differentiate your characters

A couple of months ago I wrote about multiple POVs, were they a good idea or not. At the time I mentioned that, however many characters you have, you want your reader to remember them and be able to identify them instantly without their names. Apart from the physical description [another topic for the future!], how do you differentiate your characters?

My research including asking Twitter’s #writingcommunity, brought forth some great tips and hints to find ways to differentiate your characters. High on the list was the use of dialogue, which makes sense as this is often the first contact we have with a character in a new scene. Physical traits, such as gestures/mannerisms, the way they walk, also help. But overarching all, is one ‘must have.’ Let’s take them in turn.


Using different patterns of speech appropriate to the character  is the first rule of thumb. A 19th century poorly educated fisherman, such as Jem in River Witch, needs a rougher manner of speech than the learned, middle class Aaron, or even the hardworking but higher status farmers, Hester’s father and brothers. You can also give your characters certain catchphrases, or sayings, which are distinct to them.

Writers often like to use dialect or accent, but a note of caution about this and dialect type ‘spelling’ (which may or may not reflect the way words are pronounced) – it can become wearisome if over-used. A better way to indicate dialect or accent is to use the occasional local word/expression and, if relevant, speech order.

Reflecting (and reinforcing) personalities in dialogue is also important. What our characters say as well as how they say it, can do both.

For example, a character less sure of themselves could have a hesitancy in their speech, or be softly spoken, and use apologetic words and phrases. Others with more assuredness will be more forthright in their views and not reluctant to state them, no apologies here. In Keepers, the MC’s sister, Faye, has strong views on what should be done with Raine’s wayward husband. Her views fit her ‘get it done’ personality, brooking no nonsense. She also expresses them in a sharp, snappy tone which leaves us in no doubt where she stands. Their mother, wiser and kinder, adopts a more probing, gentler approach..

Another caution here, to ensure we don’t make caricatures of our characters. It’s too easy to create, for example, a long-winded academic or a pompous clergyman with forever sentences full of high-falutin’ words. Too much of this runs the risk of creating two-dimensional characters.

Physical traits

It helps, of course, if your characters look different. Once that’s established, however, forever referring to the colour of their eyes or hair can be tiresome (a habit I have to be mindful of, I confess). There are a multitude of physical traits which distinguish one person from another in real life which can be used in fiction. We recognise our nearest and dearest even at a distance by the way they stand, the way they walk. When my daughter was in secondary school, she and all her friends wore jeans, jumpers and had long straight hair (much like me and my friends at university). But I could pick her in a crowd at 50 metres by her long-legged, purposeful stride.  

Your character might stroke their chin, pull their beard, rub their ear when nervous, or have a tendency to cross their arms.

The ‘bad’ guys might have some not-so-polite habits, to help the reader dislike them even more. For example, possessive gestures towards a woman who doesn’t welcome them is one of the traits I used in Walking in the Rain. All good, as long as we keep these gestures unique to them and, most importantly, appropriate to (and hence reinforcing) their personalities. And again that warning not to overdo it! It only needs the occasional mention, almost an aside.

Knowing your character inside out

This is the one ‘must have’ I referred to in the introduction.
We’ve talked about how characters’ speech and actions should reflect and reinforce who they are and the roles they play in our tales. To do this at its best, we need to know them inside out: how they think, how they are likely to react to different situations, what motivates them and so on. Some people figure all this out before they start writing. Others (like me) let it work itself out as the story unfolds. As one Twitter respondent (with a few book sales under her belt) said:

‘When I’m writing I imagine I am there, and I am the character, completely inhabiting them. They become real people to me that way. Then it comes without too much explicit planning.’

With you all the way, Dreena! If this doesn’t come naturally to you, take a peek at my post on deep POV (or close third) which will give you a good head start.


Three ways to differentiate your characters –

Appropriate manners of speech, vocabulary, and what is actually said, will reflect and reinforce your characters’ personalities and roles in the story.

Physical traits can do the same.

Most importantly, get inside your characters’ heads and know them better than you know yourself.  

For more writing tips, explore here. Use the search bar at the bottom to look for specific topics.