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.
Can you name an author who writes exceptional characters?
What character stands out to you the most from the books you’ve read?