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Do Your Readers Recognize Your Characters Easily?

Of course, they do! You use their names… But every single time they speak? Not unless you slow the pace of the drama with too many dialogue tags.

I ran into a problem with this when I was writing a short story. I intended it to be a freebie people could download if they signed up for my newsletter, so it was important they enjoyed it, and continued clicking “open” not “unsubscribe.”

Central to my story was four long-time friends and the first setting – grounding for trouble to come – was brunch in a café. Meet Janette, Mary-Anne, Zara, and Claire. Yes, Sarah had made life even more difficult for herself by using four characters of the same sex, which meant too many “she” and “her” – no help at all, as it might have been if only one of the women had been talking about the others to a man.

I found an answer that worked so well – the story won me $500 in a competition – I use it in my books. If you’d like to share the secret, read on.

There are three powerful ways to make your characters recognizably different: dialogue, body language, and internal thoughts.

Before I could start, I had to decide what each of my characters was actually like; they’d lived in the same small town all their lives and attended the same school. None of them was extremely wealthy or poverty-stricken, just likely to appeal to readers of romantic suspense. To do this, I used the same line of dialogue expressed differently.

Janette is blunt. “Cut the chatter, girls. I need to think!”

Mary-Anne tries to be tolerant. “Would you please tone back the noise level. I’m trying to think.”

Zara has no patience. “Shut the fuck up! I can’t hear myself think.”

Claire lacks confidence. “Excuse me, but would you mind being quiet for a minute while I think.”

I had to stay true to those traits when I showed their body language and thoughts. This is an early scene shown from Zara’s point of view.

Claire’s ponytail dipped into untouched coffee. “Err… I don’t know quite how to put this…”

“We’re your friends.” Mary-Anne stretched out a hand. “Just come out with what’s bothering you, hun.”

“Well… when I dropped Hal off at school I heard other moms sneering about his dad applying for custody, and you three were the only people I told he'd threatened to.”

Talk about worms turning! Zara jumped to her feet. “Not me, bitch. You can forget being one of my besties.”

“I’m sorry.”

Ignoring Claire’s backoff, she looked around the table. Predictably, Mary-Anne was mopping tears with a sodden tissue. Janette was flushed scarlet. Was Claire right that she’d been betrayed?

The reader now knows what my four women are like and the problem Claire faces. I chose to show this scene from Zara’s point of view; Claire is too upset to notice Mary-Anne's and Janette’s reactions. It was important to show them so I could use names less and less.

Why not try this in a scene in your book?

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Sarah Stuart