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Creating Character Voice, Part 1: Making voices distinctive

I once read a book where everyone in it spoke in exactly the same way. More frustrating still, every single character spoke in the way that writers write prose. I couldn’t lose myself in the story – I was much too aware of the author as the puppeteer of every speech and every action.

What works in prose descriptions doesn’t always work in quotation marks – a character can sound stilted and too arch, like every word has been planned ahead.

Some characters can and do sound like that, but to have everyone – from heroes to villains, from adults to children, from thought patterns to outbursts – sounding identical (and identically wordy) meant everyone felt interchangeable. I might as well have read dot points.

I didn’t finish reading the book. (Don’t ask me what it was called either. It was so forgettable that I’ve, well, forgotten.)

The thing is, not only do you have to find your own voice as a writer, you also have to work out how to give your characters their own voices, too. Dialogue can help to convey so much about a character’s personality and relationship with the world. It also means that when you shift the way they talk – say, have a taciturn character become suddenly garrulous, or a talkative character suddenly go quiet – those shifts can change the dynamics of your scene with great effect.

I’ll be covering these aspects in three posts, starting with the basics:

How to make character voices distinctive

Giving your characters distinctive speech patterns isn’t about lisps and accents (though it can be). Their speech patterns don’t have to be heavy-handed or laboured, but it helps to consider ways to ensure their dialogue (and personalities) don’t become interchangeable.

  • Does your character speak quickly or slowly?
  • Do they use short words and sentence, or long and complex ones?
  • Are they a plain-speaking type or a flowery, theatrical type?
  • Are they chirpy or sullen? Earnest or playful? Prim or earthy?
  • Does your character speak only rarely, but when they do, they’re dropping bombshells?
  • Does your character have an accent?
  • Is their vocabulary large or small?
  • Does it relate primarily to practical things or more abstract thought?
  • Are the characters different ages? Does this give them different slang, different pop culture references or grammar?

In The Opposite of Life, Lissa uses a lot of 21st century slang, often from social media, in contrast to Gary, who became a vampire in the 60s and sometimes comes out with slang from that era and, when he finally gets a phone, always punctuates his texts correctly.

In Kitty and Cadaver, Yuka the Japanese drummer doesn’t talk a lot, and when she does it’s always to the point. Steve the bass guitarist tends to a laconic drawl with a touch of old-fashioned Texan lyricism.

When it doubt, spend some time listening to people around you. How do the different people in your life communicate? How does their mood affect their speech patterns? Do they speak differently to different people? Take some time to really hear how people use their voices, and what sets them apart and makes them distinctive!

Next – Part 2: Accents and dialect – will be live on 17 November 2021.

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