Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Have you ever read a book where every character – from the six-year-old in pigtails to the wizened sea captain to the stripper – sounds the same?
It’s easy for authors to stumble into this mono-tone pitfall. The task of writing a story is already monumental, and adopting a narrative voice appropriate to the story and genre can require monumental effort. Further division of character voices often gets lost in the hustle and flow of the writing process. I have bad news and bad news: 1. giving each character their own voice is vital to the authenticity of a story and 2. giving each character their own voice requires a lot of hard work.Giving your characters authentic voices makes them feel like real people.Click To Tweet
In the end, though, it can also be a fun, creative, rewarding process. You get to know your characters intimately, and your readers are talking about them at book clubs as if they’re real people. Let’s take a look at the factors that can influence character voices and how to go about capturing those voices.
What gives a character their voice
Accent and dialect
A character’s voice may be shaped by accent or dialect, but this can go wrong quickly. If this is an avenue you’d like to pursue, check out When Can You Include Accent And Dialect In Your Dialogue?
Grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure
A character’s voice will be largely represented by their grammar and vocabulary. A street-hardened orphan in Mumbai should not have the same command of the English language as an ethics professor at Stanford.
You’ll have to factor your own grammar and vocabulary capabilities into this equation as well. If you had a C-average in community college, you’re going to need help to create a believable rocket scientist. Same applies if you need to write a kid’s voice and spend no time around kids, or want to authentically represent a zoo keeper or an Alaskan fisherman. If you don’t know what a character would talk like, your own voice or assumptions are a poor substitute.
A child will speak in shorter sentences. An older child will speak in run-on sentences. A highly educated person will speak in complex, well-formed sentences and use more refined vocabulary. A teenager will be abbreviated and cryptic. As with accent/dialect, be careful not to overdo this; a little bit of bad grammar or fancy jargon will go a long way. Tune into podcasts or YouTube, take a volunteer humanitarian trip, read or watch period or geographical media – access the target dialect and pick a couple of predominant patterns. Spend time with the characters you want to create.YouTube, radio, and online media are a great way to access unfamiliar ways of speaking.Click To Tweet
A lot of factors influence a character’s tone. When planning how to research a realistic voice, consider:
- Life experiences
- Beliefs – political, spiritual, ethical, ecumenical
- Financial status
- Social status
- The current topic of conversation
- Relationship with whoever they’re talking to
You may find it’s helpful to just keep writing. Let the plot flow. Get it out while it’s there for the getting and just use your own voice to create dialogue placeholders. This is absolutely a valid approach, but you must go back and amend these placeholders so that they accurately reflect the characters. A person who’s gruff, cranky, and naturally unfriendly isn’t going to express affection in the same tone as a tender-hearted, overly friendly kid. Know your characters and let their dialogue flow from who they are.
How to capture and differentiate voice
Create a backstory
When giving characters their voice, it is imperative that you know them inside and out. To you, they must be real people who have lived real, full lives. They have friends and family and fears and hobbies and bad habits and favorite foods and lovers and ex-lovers and future lovers and pimples and toilets and neuroses and charitable tendencies and money or no-money and pets and shampoo and copper investments they regret buying. You’re not going to put all of this in the story, but a full character development is going to help tremendously when you shape their way of talking. If you know your characters intimately, it won’t be too difficult to ask yourself, “How would Character respond to this?”
Don’t manipulate dialogue in service of something else
It’s tempting to use dialogue purely to facilitate exposition or send a message. Don’t do it. There may be times when it’s natural, and it’s okay to set this up to some extent. You might, for instance, have a character who’s in the dark about something important and then it makes sense for another character to fill them in. Just don’t try the “Professor Obvious told us we’d find the Holy Grail somewhere in the Lost City but Tom and Jane are still trapped in the cavern and time is running out!” thing.
Guard against having characters do unlikely things just because it helps the story. A person that has a lousy memory shouldn’t suddenly remember key information because it serves the plot. Someone who’s never vulnerable shouldn’t suddenly open up because you have a romance in mind and only three pages to cultivate it. Character must be the primary motivator of dialogue.
Create a dialogue file
Copy-paste all of the dialogue from each character into a separate document so that you can see everything that character says without interruption. You’ll be surprised how inconsistencies jump out at you.Create a dialogue file to help keep your characters’ voices distinct.Click To Tweet
You might also use this file to practice the characters’ voices without the disruption of plot or other characters. Use each file to write letters, journal entries, common expressions, inner monologues, etc. in that character’s voice to get a distraction-free feel for how they talk.
Differentiate between internal and external dialogue
Just because a character thinks something doesn’t mean they’ll say it. Once you’ve established your character’s personality, backstory, etc., consider also their motivation in the present situation. Imagine what they’re thinking, what they want, what they might hide or lie about or embellish or emphasize to accomplish their goals. For more on this topic, check out How To Express Your Characters’ Thoughts – With Exercises.
Get an alpha reader
Read the dialogue out loud, either in context or in the dialogue file you created. Constantly ask yourself, “Is this how Character would talk?”
Or someone else
Ask somebody to read your dialogue for you. But, first, delete the dialogue tags and ask your reader if they can identify who’s talking. You’ll want to put these back in, as dialogue tags do facilitate reading, but at least for longer stretches of text, your reader should be able to peg which lines are coming from the bartender and which are coming from his drunk patron.
Use action and body language
A character’s voice isn’t just their words. It’s also they way they move and act. Surround spoken discourse with realistic activities, movements, facial expressions, non-verbal cues, etc. to add to character tone. A teenager dealing with his mother’s premature death isn’t just going to say, “I don’t want to talk about it.” He’s also going to scuff the carpet with one foot or stare vacantly out the window.
Spend some time in each character’s shoes. Imagine their feelings; imagine what they would say to one person versus what they’d say to another. Own their personality. Even if it feels silly or unnecessary, close your eyes, imagine yourself as Captain Y, commander of the Air Force F-22 Raptor, and lose yourself in the character. How do they talk, really?
If you want to know how a four-year-old talks, ask somebody who has one. If you want to get inside the head of a sugar beet farmer in Brazil, go to Brazil (budget pending) and find one, or else read magazine articles, history books, farming blogs, and almanacs, and find a more local farmer to run your knowledge by. Immerse yourself in period fiction. Interview, interview, interview. Ask nice people with relevant knowledge to read your dialogue files. You don’t have to ask them to read the whole book, just the parts they can speak to.
How to capture and differentiate voice
Do the research, get to know your characters, and give them multiple dimensions. Do all that and their voices will emerge from that knowledge base and you won’t have to force it.
What about you, what have you learned about giving different characters their own voice? What do you struggle with? Let me know in the comments.