Making Characters Different – Common Words


But How Do I Make Characters Sound Different?

How Many Common Words Are We Using?

How should we differentiate characters?

That’s a pretty important job for a fiction writer. Readers don’t want everything sounding similar. That’s an invitation to put stories down never to return…and Kindle hides wasted shelf space.

This question arose on Scrib, discussing whether to eliminate contractions from character dialog. Since I wrote my last MC using that approach, I listened intently. Many judged characters speaking without contractions boring and stuffy. Chills ran down my spine. Had I written Deheya that way?  Too late now.

I decided she would use no contractions before I seriously edited my WIP.  My process edits a work in several passes, focusing on one type of thing to while excluding all other considerations until finished— repetition, the 300 most commonly used English words, the verb BE, filtering, non-LY adverbs, pronouns, and tone, with limits for each area.

And the light-bulb went on.  Would drastically changing a limit create a large enough change that readers would notice on a subconscious level.  Of that list, playing with common words might prove most noticeable. Maybe, if I took a few paragraphs from some dreadful unpublished work, rewrote in my current writing style, I could edit two versions. In one, kill commons, and in the other, pack them in.

But, first, what are the 300 most common words in English?  They are exactly that…the most often used words.  Is this the only list?  Nope.  Just google away.  But it’s good enough for my purposes.

I needed something to try this approach out on.  What better than something long forgotten that I have no particular attachment to?  So, I found something from a story on one of those sites, edited with focus on repetition, the verb BE, filters, adverbs, and pronouns, and set a neutral tone.

After that, I went to work, eliminating or replacing non-common words where possible. After that, I hunted for commons. I included both versions.

More Common Words

How like a man for Greg to tell her to come to this dive, give only two hours to change and drive over, then not even— Black leather cut off her view as a man’s smell reached her. She turned her head, holding her breath.

Big hands landed on hers, pinning them down on the table, and the tall biker moved close, looking down inside her dress. “Hola, chiquita.”

“Please, you’re hurting me.” She could only watch, unable to back up, gagging at his smelly breath.

Without letting go, he pressed his belly at her face, then moved in a circle, meaning obvious. “Interesado, puta?”

As she jumped as far as she could, she bumped a second man moving in behind.

One hand in her hair, his friend pressed his other hand down her back, tugging on the sleeveless sheath dress.

Fewer Common Words

How dare Greg demand she meet him in this dive, issue an impossible two-hour deadline to prepare and drive across town, then not bother— Black leather clouded her vision as body odors wafted past. She leaned back, trying not to breathe.

Iron-strong fists gripped her wrists, pinning them flat against the table, and a tall biker leaned in, craning his neck as his eyes sought the front of her dress. “Hola, chiquita.”

“Please, you’re hurting me.” She blinked, unable to lean further back, mentally gagging at his foul breath.

Grip never relenting, he thrust his hips, now at eye level, toward her, then gyrated in a circle, interest and intent obvious. “Interesado, puta?”

As she jumped as far as his grip permitted, she bumped into a second biker sliding in behind her.

One hand gripping her hair, another slowly rubbed her back, tugging the sleeveless sheath dress.

141 total words, 38% common 149 total words, 23% common


Do they read differently? As the writer, I cannot tell. But…when my text-to-speech app read them back, they felt different.

I wonder if, over the course of a novel, readers will subconsciously feel the difference?

Otherwise, it’s a looooot of work for very little gain.


3 thoughts on “Making Characters Different – Common Words

  1. They read very differently to me. This is I think where pov is so very important. I recently finished reading a trilogy, at the start one of the pov characters is a street urchin whose vacbulary is very small, it comes out in his internal narrative, and when there is less narrative distance, by the end of the trilogy(which spans almost two decades) his thoughts and close pov parts are very similar to another character whom he’s spent a great deal of time with.

    A funny thing, when I first started reading Terry Pratchett, the voice of the narrator was british, this was before I knew he was a brit. It was just phrasing and humor, but it made a world of difference.

    I’m actually tempted to try this exercise just for fun. What did you use to analyze the density of the common words?

    • Yes, series evolve over time. I’ve wondered how I’m going to handle the continued reintroduction of characters at the start of later novelettes. I get that writer boredom or laziness shouldn’t be the guide, but I wonder how much readers in future stories will need.

      If you are game to try it, here’s what I did. I found an app which would do word counts and copy results to an excel table. Then I copied the list of 300 words from the link in the blog post, and compared the two lists. Then, as I started removing common words, I put them into the Scrivener search bar…and the targets popped up. If I could, I replaced the word, then went on to the next one.

      But putting additional common words in proved more difficult because, as it turned out, there were more uncommon words. But I still went through the same process of replacing highlighted words with common words where I could. But it took more time than expected.

      Happy experimenting. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Waiting For A Clear Mind And Fresh Eyes | Simply Silent

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