Variety Is the Spice of Characters

Recently I read a general market novel where I noticed that the characters sounded the same in a way. For example, for earning money, two disparate characters said, “made scratch.” The phrase jumped out at me the first time because it’s one I simply don’t use. So when a second character used the same expression, my mind wandered out of the story and into thinking about the expression.

The book dealt with several topics, with an emphasis on human trafficking. That’s why when the characters referred to the act of love, they chose a crude word. But even this didn’t ring true to me. I don’t think everyone should have used the same crude word, and they did. Varying this word from character to character would have done much to put the reader into the character’s world. So this time I was distracted not only by the vulgarity, but the fact I kept reading the same coarse word from every quarter.

When a reader has the chance mentally to leave the world you have created in your novel, the reader must discipline herself to return to your world. Or she may put the book down – possibly never to pick it back up.

How to avoid this?

Nothing is guaranteed, but one way is to give each character a certain turn of phrase, mannerism, or other distinctive trait. It’s not enough for the characters to look different, because you don’t want to keep referring to blonde hair or muscular arms, for instance. But a sprinkling of a word or expression limited to one character can help your reader “hear” the character. For instance, in the story I referenced, the first character could have said, “made scratch” and the second character could have said, “made bank” or something similar. Still using slang, but with a distinction.

You might say, “Well, can’t characters who are close-knit talk alike?” Yes, to a point. A native Southerner wouldn’t say “pop” for a carbonated beverage but this would be a fun term for a transplant from the Midwest. The native Southerners might even rib him about it. See the difference?

Your goal is to keep the reader’s mind from wandering to the unwashed dinner dishes. Vibrant characters can help keep the reader immersed in your world long past bedtime.

Your turn:

Can you name an author who writes exceptional characters?

What character stands out to you the most from the books you’ve read?


42 Responses to Variety Is the Spice of Characters

  1. Jackie Layton May 5, 2016 at 4:23 am #

    Rachel Hauck’s Royal wedding series has great characters. As a child I loved Cinderella, and reading these books makes me happy and takes me to a magical place.

    Tamela, thanks for the reminder our characters need to be distinct. I try to keep a list of phrases and mannerisms for each of my characters. In my last story I even had one say couch and the other say sofa. I wasn’t sure if that was silly, but now that I’ve read your post, I think it’s okay.

  2. Diana Harkness May 5, 2016 at 5:25 am #

    Writers with exceptional characters that I return to time and again: Dean Koontz, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Martin, Billy Coffey, Michael Morris, J.R.R. Tolkien (I just finished rereading his trilogy),and others that I cannot think of right now. I don’t know that any one character stands out for me. If they are finely crafted, I enjoy them all.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 5, 2016 at 7:01 am #

      Diana, I think you just enhanced everyone’s “to be read or read again” pile!

  3. Cherrilynn Bisbano May 5, 2016 at 5:32 am #

    HI Great post, Lori Roeleved’s Helen Bancroft in Red Pen Redemption. I am from New England, the people here are unique. Lori captured every nuance. I could feel Helen’s emotion through Lori’s words.

  4. April Kidwell May 5, 2016 at 5:55 am #

    I am currently teaching A Tale of Two Cities and was struck by the distinctive voice given to each witness testifying against Darnay. Two witnesses do not even get official dialogue, but the structure of the questions and answers are so different for every witness that we learn key aspects of character and motives. We are shown truth about each person without being told. Now the trick is applying his skill in such a way to keep a modern reader reading!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 5, 2016 at 7:05 am #

      April, that’s an excellent observation! Now that you’ve read the technique and noticed it, no doubt you can quickly adapt.

  5. Beverly Brooks May 5, 2016 at 6:02 am #

    Great teaching blog – thank you!
    Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple from Agatha Christie. I “know” them.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 5, 2016 at 7:06 am #

      Beverly. those characters are great examples of personality and consistency throughout a series. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Carol Ashby May 5, 2016 at 6:38 am #

    Tamela, I would add Jane Austen and Francine Rivers to the list. It isn’t just the primary characters that stand out in their work. From “Pride and Prejudice,” I even remember the dialogue of the secondary characters like Mary and Charlotte. It isn’t just Hadassah, Marcus, and Atretes in Rivers’s Mark of the Lion series who stay in my mind. The novels are filled with 3-dimensional secondary characters who flesh out each novel’s world and live on into the next.

    I’ve noticed a weakness in many novels that adhere rigidly to the contemporary style of limiting the POV to one or two main characters. The secondary characters who were so fully developed in older novels seem more like 2-D caricatures and less like real human beings moving through the main characters’ lives who also have a complete existence of their own.

    I can’t bring myself to flatten the important “extra” characters like that in my novels. Maybe that’s why the “minor” characters keep spawning the next novel’s plot.

  7. Tamela Hancock Murray May 5, 2016 at 7:14 am #

    Carol, it’s always great to have interesting secondary characters who can carry the next book in a series. I think the two-POV model applies more to some genres than others. For instance, romance novels should be all about the romance. If there is a very distracting secondary character, you are getting too far away from the purpose of the novel. Also consider that many older novels are quite long and hence, have the room to add more developed minor characters, and show a reason why we should care about them. But even in today’s shorter novels, there is still room for secondary characters to display their own quirks and speech patterns.

    Thanks for great book recommendations!

    • Carol Ashby May 5, 2016 at 9:04 am #

      For me, the extra dimensions beyond the simple romance make a love story so much more enjoyable. I like romances to have a fully developed rival or opponent so the protagonist is faced with a real choice or a challenging barrier. The scope for developing intriguing characters is much wider as well. That extra main character is often the one who makes the story much more fun to read and truly memorable (every great love story should have its Wickham or Willoughby). I also like the love story to develop in parallel with a broader adventure. That’s why I much prefer romantic historicals to pure historical romance, and that’s what I find I write. That’s also why I like the 100K+ story length better than something less than 85K, although a good romance novella that can be read in a single night on a trip can be a source of pleasurable relaxation.

      • Linda Riggs Mayfield May 5, 2016 at 9:06 am #

        I wish I had read your post before I posted mine. You said it better and mine wouldn’t have been necessary. 🙂

  8. Susan Wingate May 5, 2016 at 7:33 am #

    Such a great post, Tamela. Right away, a phrase came to mind for one of my secondary characters, Page, to use.

    As for an author who writes great characters, I have to think of one of my faves, Kurt Vonnegut–thinking of Breakfast of Champions and Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout character.

    But there are so many great authors out there who write characters well. They’re like Lay’s potato chips… it’s difficult to pick just one.

  9. Susan Wingate May 5, 2016 at 7:36 am #

    My sister reads Bodie Thoene but I have never. (Shh, don’t tell anyone) However, after reading your description of the Alfie character, I’m heading over to get one of her books right now. Should I start with the first book in that series?

    • Susan Wingate May 5, 2016 at 8:17 am #

      Thank you, Rebekah! I will get the Vienna Prelude and, no, I’m not a saccharine sort of gal. 🙂
      Thanks again, Susan.

    • Linda Riggs Mayfield May 5, 2016 at 9:04 am #

      Thank you for having the courage to speak your mind. 🙂 I do understand the pleasant escapism offered in the “saccharine romance,” but if I invest my limited discretionary reading time in a book, I want to dig into the complexities of setting, history, and characters. I like a book that motivates me to get out a map when I follow the plot line and go to Google to learn even more about background people and places. I find all those in the Thoene series. If I were to name authors I’d most like to emulate, Brock and Bodie Thoene would be on the short list.

      • Carol Ashby May 5, 2016 at 9:21 am #

        They would be on my short list, too, for all the reasons Linda listed and for one more. Some of their characters also undergo spiritual transformation, and I love to read that when it’s a believable progression and not formulaic.

  10. Joanna May 5, 2016 at 7:57 am #

    Dorothy Dunnett with her Lymond Chronicles!!!

  11. Cynthia Herron May 5, 2016 at 10:27 am #

    Jan Karon, Debbie Macomber, Susie May Warren, Sarah Loudin Thomas, Beth Vogt, William Sirls, and too many others to name, but these authors, particularly, have left a profound impact on me.

    Newer author Sirls (The Reason, The Sinners’ Garden) has quite a personal testimony, and I think that adds great depth and breadth to his characters. …And, after The Reason, I’ll never look at apple the same way again.

    • Cynthia Herron May 5, 2016 at 11:07 am #

      *an apple, not Apple the company.

      And BTW, The Reason has just wrapped filming and it stars Louis Gossett, Jr. as James Lindy the blind minister, one of my favorite characters in the book. 🙂

  12. Natalie Monk May 5, 2016 at 10:45 am #

    Great topic, Tamela. I love the Southerner/Midwesterner example. I have a friend who moved to Mississippi from Michigan. When someone hard of hearing asked her dad to repeat himself, they said, “Do what now?” To which he responded, “I didn’t ask you to do anything.” 🙂

    I love studying Karen Witemeyer’s characters. Even in her narrative, word choices are colored by the character’s background and perception of the current situation.

    Imagining the characters as certain friends, relatives, or movie actors helps me keep my characters’ dialogue unique. When facing down a thief, Cary Grant wouldn’t “clear his hog-leg and draw a bead on the sidewinder.” But John Wayne might.

  13. Joanne Reese May 5, 2016 at 11:00 am #

    Great post, Tamela. I’ve decided to give myself permission to abandon a novel if it’s loaded with these kind of distractions. I’d rather spend my time reading something that emulates what I hope to put on the page myself. Good characterization always carries me right through to the end of a story.

    I’ve discovered this masterful skill in the following authors: M.C. Beaton, Harlan Coben, Dorothea Benton Frank, Angela Elwell Hunt, Barbara Kingsolver, Kate Morton, Louise Penny, Francine Rivers, Nancy Rue, Anna Quindlen and Lisa Samson.

    I always love the chance to add to my reading list so I appreciate all of the recommendations others have shared. There are some great craft books out there on characterization as well. “Getting Into Character,” by Brandilyn Collins was recommended by Jerry Jenkins. I’ve added it to my reading list this year.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 5, 2016 at 11:31 am #

      Joanne, it’s hard to go wrong with this list!

      • Carol Ashby May 5, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

        I was looking some of these up on Amazon, and I found a common thread. They all write long books with plenty of time for deeper secondary character development. The virtual dictum for debut authors to keep it short certainly seems to run counter to what the authors we consider great do.

        • Tamela Hancock Murray May 5, 2016 at 2:40 pm #

          Carol, it’s not so much debut authors who need to keep it short, but authors writing for certain lines and in certain genres. Publishers are working to keep readers’ loyalty and interest.

          • Carol Ashby May 5, 2016 at 3:24 pm #

            That’s good to know! Thanks for the clarification.

          • Grace May 6, 2016 at 7:31 am #

            Tamela – This is very helpful. Question… would you say romance novels would be one of those genres for which publishers expect shorter manuscripts? And concerning characters, what about novels with diverging love stories, where the “star” couple gets the happily ever after but the other does not? Would the second couple be considered distracting or secondary (characters)?

            • Tamela Hancock Murray May 6, 2016 at 10:27 am #

              Grace, I would refer you to the guidelines for the publisher you are targeting to get a feel for their expected word count.

              As you probably know, I wrote romance novels for quite a few years. In one of my longer stories, I did have two couples, but I gave everyone a happy ending. In romance, that is what I recommend.

  14. rochellino May 5, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

    Tamela, a different perspective,. Most of my reading is contained to matters of the Kingdom. Scripture is number one then books about scripture like Dr. David Jeremiah, et al. follow.

    I have never had a desire to write “like” someone. My characters are generated rather exclusively from real life people and experiences. I want the reader to “relate” to my characters in the deepest way. I want them to place THEMSELVES in the role of one of my characters, most fervently the protagonist. I abhor the thought that my work could possibly ever be thought of “derivative” of another author. If ever considered such it would be strictly coincidental because I most likely have never read or even heard of many particular authors.

    After the reader places themselves in my story I want them to be completing characters, situations and places in the story to what is most satisfying to them. What reader deep down, even they may be possibly horribly flawed, doesn’t know that in some way THEY possess some true God given greatness. This promotes a vivid, life like vicarious experience. Genuine “reflections of THEIR life”.

    For me, this is utilizing the technique of the great impressionist painters of the past. They RELIED on the mind, experiences and environment of the viewer to complete the painting in a most satisfactory way. For the writer, each reader will complete the story in the same manner. Many readers will experience the story, possibly without even realizing they helped “write” THEIR version , in a self customized, highly satisfying way. I consider this style of writing much like designing pharmaceuticals according to a particular persons DNA thereby gaining maximum efficacy without deleterious side effects (in its infancy at this time).

    I am never chasing trends, I don’t even know what the current trend is (like Amish vampires?) I read about them on this blog some time ago. Are they still in vogue?

    God Bless to everyone and Happy Mother’s Day to those (regrettably sometimes unsung) hero’s of the family.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 5, 2016 at 2:38 pm #

      Rochellino, thanks for sharing the music link. No, Amish vampires aren’t in vogue. Now that I’ve said that, watch someone get a ten-book contract for an Amish vampires series tomorrow!

      Yes, you definitely want your characters to touch readers’ hearts and minds. Well said!

  15. Sheri Dean Parmelee May 5, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

    Tamela, I used to really enjoy the Father Tim character in the Medford series. I did get quite tired of the one character who was always described as “having a smile that wrapped around his head.” When the author started describing Father Tim that way, I got discouraged because I felt that the description “belonged” to someone else.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 5, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

      Great point, Sheri! Readers do start to look for certain tags that “belong” to certain characters. Thanks for the reminder.

  16. Mary May 7, 2016 at 8:57 pm #

    No one has mentioned Terri Blackstock or Earlene Fowler yet. Both of them do a great job of keeping characters distinct. The people in Fowler’s Benni Harper series — masterful!

  17. Christine Henderson May 7, 2016 at 9:26 pm #

    I’ve often read that your characters should have their own “tick” or “token” – something that is unique to them. This could include a favorite phrase, repeating action or something they reach for as a sense of security.

    I see others have mentioned Father Tim and the Mitford series. What stands out in those books for me is his oft repeated phrase “the prayer that never fails”…meaning “God’swill be done”

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