Now that we’ve covered some basic on making your characters sound like individuals, let’s move onto some of the fun stuff – using the voices of your characters to demonstrate relationships and reveal (or conceal) elements of the story!
When should your characters sound alike?
No rule is written in stone. While you want your characters to sound like real, individual people, you can actually play with speech patterns to indicate connections with characters too.
Do these people come from the same region? If so, do they share an accent (or do differences in their accents demonstrate differences in class or other elements of their background)? How might shared phrasing and slang reveal that connection, especially if one of them is trying to hide it? Or is this how the characters recognise a kindred spirit?
Perhaps members of the same family can have certain slang terms or ways of talking that indicate the relationship before you’ve revealed it. Lovers and close friends can also share verbal tics and in-jokes. Perhaps word usage can indicate a shared profession (armed forces, for example, or medicine.)
Changing the dynamic
Having chosen a voice for a character, you can still mix it up. People aren’t only one thing, and how they communicate may change, depending on context – including the person they’re speaking with, their emotional state and how tense/relaxed the situation makes them.
A fun thing to do with Sherlock Holmes, for example, it so have him speak in very short, distracted bursts (if he speaks at all) while scouring a crime scene for clues. But once he starts deducing? You can have a cascade of words pouring out of him as he talks through his deductions. By the same taken, maybe your version of John Watson tends to be chatty, but when he’s providing his professional medical opinion, he might be very concise and to the point.
I used to work with someone who slipped into a faint Scottish accent when on the phone to his mother – a sound very at odds with his normal office voice. I’ve been told I have very specific changes in cadence when I speak publicly to when I’m talking to friends.
There’s also what I’ve always referred to as the ‘Grandma Protocol’ which somehow stops me swearing in front of grandparents.
If someone suddenly changes their accent, are they revealing something about themselves? In Ravenfall, James’s Scots accent thickens when he’s under stress or otherwise very emotional, so he’ll tend to use more slang or say ‘d’ye’ rather than ‘do you’ in those circumstances. He uses some sweet slang terms as pet names for his boyfriend, and far less gentle words for his enemies.
What might a sudden shift in speech patterns reveal about a character? How would that fit into either their character development or the plot you’re unveiling? Will a word betray an imposter? Will a phrase reveal someone’s true intentions? What slips of vocabulary, accent and pattern will change the direction of a scene and move the story forward?
An editing tip: Reading aloud
It’s always useful to read your work aloud to check for flow and repetition, but it’s also a good way to see how distinctive the voices are. Read to yourself, to a person, your cat or a pot plant. Just try it out loud to see how it works.
Does the dialogue convey a sense of who is saying it? The writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer said in a DVD extra once that even when they’d rewritten a scene, they knew who’d originally had the dialogue because the characters were so distinctive in the way they spoke. They’d always have to rewrite a line to suit the character now speaking it.
There are other ways to see that your characters don’t sound identical, but you don’t need to make everyone so absolutely distinctive it’s overdone and jarring. You want to keep the reader in the story. But with balance and a light touch, you can create texture and add authenticity to characters that are vibrant and alive within the page.