Discussion: How to Differentiate Characters
Ever gotten the critique “there are too many characters in this scene,” or “I can’t tell the characters apart?”
That is what we will talk about today. How to differentiate them from each other.
This Month in Critiques:
Spoilers for Red Rising Book 3: Morning Star
The entire book is in first person. When Severo dies there are multiple paragraph about the emotional impact of this on the main character. Two chapters later it’s revealed that this was the main characters plan all along, and Severo is not dead.
It’s a huge violation of trust between reader and story teller. When we go into the mind of a character we see their thoughts. If he was acting we should have seen that, because that what he was actually thinking. The emotional reaction as though Severo had died is a trick of the writer, and it frustrated me.
We will talk about 3 techniques to help differentiate your characters so they are easy to track, and your readers don’t confuse them. How to Remember Names, Cursing and Profanity, and Dialogue.
Half the time I’m reading the book I can’t tell the difference between two characters in a room. It makes it hard to track their motivations and progress towards their goals, and that kills suspense.
Red Rising: Sometimes there are 7 or 8 people in a meeting and I never confuse them.
Using the techniques to remember to names to help your reader differentiate characters
Alliteration, Feature exaggeration and Larger Neural Networks:
I was listening to an episode of Writing Excuses and Mary very briefly mentioned using the techniques of remembering people’s names to help reader remember your characters. It sounded brilliant and I wanted to dig deeper into the idea, in fact all the ideas they shared in that episode.
Mary’s Example: Monty with the mustache.
There are good and bad things about this example. The alliteration makes it easier to remember, but it comes off as a little silly. If your writing YA or a comedy piece that’s fine, but what if you are writing something serious?
In that case you can still use alliteration “Monty with the mustache,” but you want to reader to come up with that idea, instead of feeding it to them directly.
“Monty as at the table flicking the mug in his hand repeatedly. His mustache…[we’ll follow more of this paragraph later]
In remembering people’s names they recommend you focus on their most outstanding characteristic and exaggerate it, so it’s more memorable.
In writing you don’t need to exaggerate the trait, just spend more time describing it. As we’ve mentioned before this fits in with Essence Theory, and in dealing with setting it’s called Landscape and Center Piece
We’ll read you the whole paragraph on his mustache in a min. But I want to cover the last aspect of remembering people’s names. Connecting this trait to what they do, or who they are.
Larger Neural Networks
By connecting this defining feature to more about the character it builds a larger neural network in the brain, and that makes it more memorable.
So Monty with the Mustache:
“His mustache curled at the tips with the wax he put in it. The stuff was so expensive he had to fast for an entire day each month to afford it. But Monty felt fashion was worth sacrifice. For all the superficiality of clothes and hairstyles, his approached made it feel less so, but his mustache still looked ridiculous.”
Now the mustache and Monty should be inseparable, but you also know what it tells you about his character.
Cursing, Profanity & Swearing Oaths
Cursing and Profanity are derived from four major things: Sex, Religion, Excrement, and Colloquial terms. These are also influenced by history, so how someone choose to approach them can tell us a lot about about a character, and also help us tell them apart.
You can have different character focus on different aspects of swearing. So one might use exclusively sexaul profanity while another is only religious.
Historical: Forinication Under Congregation of the King. Legalized rape during the crusades, and a reference to the rights of First Night sometimes given to Lords.
General religious profanity vs specific.
“By Abraham’s beard.”
A character who uses exclusively excrement based profanity could also expand to a focus on bodily functions as well, constantly commenting on other people farting.
That’s a load of BS vs. That’s a load of crap vs.That’s a load of hogwash.
There isn’t a clear technique here, only a long list of possible examples. The best way to use dialogue to differentiate character is to remove all tags and action beats and read through the chapter. If you can’t tell them apart they need more dialogue differentiation.
A few ways to address this is: word choice, general sentence length, self interruptions, tangents, personal stories.
I recommend finding an actor in a role and watch Youtube clips to get a feel for their dialogue.