Differentiating Characters:

How to be a nose for characters

Keswick Vineyards, Keswick, Virginia

Near my home, a world-class vineyard and winery nestles into a pastoral valley limned by blue mountains. “Yes, Virginia,” more than fifty award-winning vineyards make the central part of our state a destination for oenophiles. At Keswick Vineyards, there’s a popular annual competition in which wine club members are invited into the cellars. There, oenophile aka “nose” teams compete to create a blend labeled as Consensus.

The Right Blend

Different varieties of grapes make wines more complex and maximize the expression of a bottle, as do the right blend of characters in our stories. As a little Merlot can help soften Cabernet’s tannins or a touch of Syrah can give some oomph to watery inexpensive Pinot, giving characters distinguishing traits make scenes interesting and robust, worth savoring, and with just the right finish.

In his (completely brilliant) craft book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, agent Donald Maas says, “Character differentiation is the technique of making the characters in your cast different and distinct from one another . . . contrast is the key.”

Aim for contrast by focusing on personality, voice and worldview:


Like sweetness and acidity in wine, characters need each other for balance.

The good-guys need foils–black-hearted scoundrels–to highlight the good-guys’ white-knight personas. (While an antagonist acts in opposition to the MC, a foil simply provides a contrast.) Consider Cal and Aron in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a novel modeled after the Bible story of Adam and Eve and their sons Cain and Abel. Aron is pale and delicate, the beloved son, while the murderous Cain is dark and secretive. Not only do the boys’ personalities provide contrast and complexity to the story, they affect the choices they make throughout the novel.


A great wine speaks. Characters resonate with readers when they’re given accents, nicknames and quirk. A memorable scene in Susan Isaac’s novel RED, WHITE AND BLUE features a jumble of soldiers sharing a WWII foxhole. Issacs gives each man a different regional accent making the scene interesting, compelling, and yes, hilarious. (Though I grew up in Chattanooga, I still giggled at the guffawing bumpkin from Tennessee.)

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, Jay Gatsby nicknames Nick Carraway Old Sport, which implies that Nick desires an old-money lifestyle; he wants to play rich men’s games at the mansion estates of East Egg, Long Island. Old Sport. How catchy is that?

STAR WARS Yoda, the ancient Jedi Master, says his wise words using an object-subject-verb pattern. (Maybe that’s what everyone did 900 years ago.) Old style and direct it is. Quirky and exotic it is. And love the wrinkly little green badass we do.


Oenophiles use the term “earthy” to describe wines delivering a sense of place and origin, from where the grapes were grown, even to the type of soil.

Great characters have complex root systems. We empathize with them–even the rascals–because we know where they came from and how their experiences have shaped their worldviews for better or worse. Even if opposing characters have similar desires or goals, it’s the origin of what drives them that matters.

Contrasting worldviews make characters believable and relatable. Sharpen your shovel, and dig deep. Give your characters deeply buried secrets and internal struggles that will trigger the decisions that drive your plot.

Just as Keswick Vineyard’s Consensus competition affords noses an inside view of what makes great wines work, allowing readers to see what makes our characters tick as individuals, makes for richer, fuller, and more satisfying reading experiences.


The Inevitable Question

When someone asks me what I do, the conversation typically goes something like this.

“I’m a writer.”

*Smiles/lifts brows* “Ahh, what do you write?”

“Women’s fiction.”

*Brow furrows slightly* And wait for it . . . “What exactly is that?”

So, I thought it might be fun to create a little presentation that helps define the genre. Click on the PowerPoint below and let me know what surprised you.

Keeping It Real

How relatable is your pitch?

Relatable: (adj.) that someone can understand or feel sympathy for.

I’m one of the three or four women in America who has never watched an episode of TV’s “The Bachelor.” But the other night, while randomly thumbing the remote, I landed on the show’s season finale.


With time to spare at the end of the show, the host proposed (pun intended) that the woman chosen as next season’s bachelorette offer a red rose to one of five new bachelors. An “I like you the best at first blush” gesture. By the audience’s gasps and giggles, I guessed it was an unprecedented, slightly scandalous move.

One at a time, the bachelors approached the gorgeous bachelorette, Hannah, and gave her their personal “pitches.”

Then Hannah made her selection: the guy, who in only thirty seconds had captured her eye, sent her heart a-flutter, and piqued her interest, the dapper Cam.

Cam was polished. He had done his homework, personalized his pitch. He’d performed a ten-second rap he’d written for Hannah, tacking a reference to her Alabama alma mater onto the end: “Roll Tide!”

The guy risked making a fool of himself on national TV.

And it worked.

Hannah understood; Hannah sympathized. “How you pumped up your jams,” breathed the giddy bachelorette, “that was awesome.” Cam gave her a glimpse of who he is and left her wanting to know more. He stood out from the pack, and Hannah tucked a rose into his lapel.

Do your homework. Personalize your pitch for each agent you send it to. Make your characters relatable, even if they are post-apocalypse zombie tax accountants. Don’t give away too much plot too soon. Make the agent want to know more.

You just might receive a rose.

How I Landed My Literary Agent

In 2015 and on the heels of a twenty-year teaching career, I began writing my first book. I had no experience with creative writing, simply a passion for evocative women’s fiction. Nine months later, the manuscript was complete. I emailed query letters and sample chapters to literary agents. While I received several requests for additional chapters, the manuscript was ultimately rejected by more agents than I have teeth. I decide to self-publish. Six months later, the big brown truck unloaded two-hundred books on my front porch. I threw myself a fancy book launch party and expected to become the next Anne Rivers Siddons.

I had a lot to learn.

For the next year, I spoke to book clubs, made eight Barnes and Noble appearances in eight cities and vended the book at countless Saturday farmers markets. Despite my efforts, IN ROBIN’S NEST never took wing. Too late, I learned that self-published (vs. traditionally published) authors need publicists. After paying the publisher, my writing budget was nonexistent. And publicists cost more than foot surgery.

But I had another story to tell. In 2017, I began writing GEORGIE GIRL and studying the craft of writing. I hired a young freelance editor, who affirmed my talent, while teaching me more about the craft than I believe any MFA program could. A year later, the manuscript was complete. Believing it was “the” book, I again queried agents. Unfortunately, this was the boom period for thrillers such as GONE GIRL. A coming-of-age story set in the seventies wasn’t making agent pulses race. Though I did receive encouragement, another barrage of rejections (which aren’t personal, but leave you feeling as gutted as fresh-caught trout) hit my inbox.

I moved on. I read everything I could get my hands on about the craft and joined the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Writing can be an isolating endeavor. Every writer needs a tribe of supporters. Through WFWA I met my Nashville-based critique partner with whom I’ll be friends to the grave. I helped others celebrate landing agents, while thinking it would never happen for me. But I wasn’t giving up.

In March of 2018, I began writing my third novel A CLEFT IN THE WORLD, the story of an agoraphobic French professor whose raison d’etre is a women’s college on the skids. Midstream chapter six, my wonder girl editor took a health-related leave of absence. Scrambling, I was fortunate enough to find a powerhouse book coach through Author Accelerator and finished the manuscript in September 2018. Again, I faced the dreaded querying process. With heart in mouth, I emailed queries. A few rejections hit my inbox. But one month later, I had received full-manuscript requests from two agents.

The day before Thanksgiving, I received an email from Pamela Harty of the Knight Agency. She had just finished my book, loved it and wanted to “chat.” I screamed and prayed and prepared. That afternoon, I had a delightful conversation with Pamela, and she offered me a contract. Me! I hung up, screamed some more and cried. I celebrated Thanksgiving with special gratitude. And then dove into the revisions she suggested.

This week my agent began submitting A CLEFT IN THE WORLD to publishers. A manuscript can sell in a week. Or a year. Meanwhile, I’m outlining a new book and deciding what I might do with GEORGIE GIRL.

In today’s market, it can take two or three or ten books to garner the attention of an agent. If you are pursuing a career in traditional publishing, learn from rejection. Do your research. Interact with other writers. Most important, don’t give up! Keep writing and honing your skills.

*Today I serve as Director of Craft/Education Programs for the association.