Aug 31 2011

Writing Distinct Character Voices

Published by at 6:46 am under Guest Articles,Voice,Writing Articles

In real life, everyone talks in different ways. Their tone, timbre, rhythm and vocabulary are often influenced by region, race, class, profession, and so on. If your hobos sound like your professors, that’s usually a problem.  Giving all the characters in a story a similar voice is usually unrealistic and uncanny.

 

Some writers have problems with giving their characters distinct voices. By keeping several factors in mind, character voices can be diversified.

 

Word Choice

What is the character’s vocabulary like? It’d probably feel out of place for a hobo to start spouting words like “erudite” or “superfluous,” or for a professor to say “gigolo” or for a politician to say “sorry.”  This varies by situation (see below), but generally characters should use terms more believable for their level of education, intelligence and/or lack of any discernible moral code.

 

How does the character use those words?  Do they talk in full, long sentences, or in fragments? Do they use contractions, curse words, or made up words? Dialogue doesn’t have to be as perfect as the narrative text. On the other hand, if they go all the way towards following grammar rules that most people don’t even know about, they might establish themselves as pedantic/snobby.

 

Force

How forceful (or passive) is the character’s voice?  This is influenced by factors such as role and confidence. A drill sergeant would talk differently than a timid professor, especially if he wants to keep his job.

 

Does the speaker hesitate?  While sounds like “um” and “uh” don’t usually appear in dialogue, including them can help establish a character’s personality and state of mind.  Another way to suggest that a character is hesitant or reserved is to use passive voice.

 

Does the speaker refer to himself?  For example, if you wanted to show that a character doesn’t have much of a self-identity, you might have the character avoid personal words like “I” and “me.”  This could also be used to show that a character is not taking personal responsibility.  For example, instead of saying “I will do that,” he/she might say “It needs to be done.”  On the other hand, a character that uses the “I” in almost every sentence will probably sound self-centered, especially if the conversation is not at all about him.

 

Metaphors, Similes and Comparisons

How florid is your character’s language?  What types of metaphors/similes does your character use?  Consider their interests, background and personality.  For example, a Southern maid might use more folksy similes, whereas a poet might use extended metaphors and a pop culture junkie might refer to Lady Gaga or Glee.  A disgruntled editing flunky might make (probably scatological) allusions to Garth Ennis.  Do be careful, though—pop culture references can date a work and nobody reads Garth Ennis.

 

Catchphrases and Tics

If all else fails, incorporating a quirk may help.  A word or phrase used often can bring a personality trait to light.  For example, a character that repeats a phrase like “Here we go again” is probably the reluctant straight man of the story.

 

Please be careful when picking one, though. Otherwise, the catchphrase might be cliché or tacked on.  Pick something distinct for your character.

 

Situations

Finally there’s one thing you have to consider: A character’s voice can vary depending on the situation. For example, a lawyer may talk with a formal stance while in court, but at home, she would become more relaxed, and she would use simple language while addressing her children (“Mommy has to work on something really important”).   However, her internal thoughts may expose her tenderness and softness that her work and home facade hides.

 

Character voice is also a great way to reflect on a character’s depth, by contrasting their external and internal sides.

 

Final Disclaimer

If you get obsessed trying to make each characters voice distinctive, calm down. It’s okay to have a few characters have similar voices, particularly if the characters share enough in common that they should sound alike.  For example, if your main characters are all drill sergeants, they’ll probably sound more alike than not.  However, generally characters shouldn’t all sound alike.  Even drill sergeants may try different approaches based on the situation and their personality differences sometimes come across.  (For example, there was one mischievous drill instructor at Parris Island that got up the recruits’ hopes by being super-friendly and lenient for a week before starting with the 3 AM room inspections).

 

Final, Final Disclaimer

While voices can help highlight a personality, they aren’t a substitute for one.  A character needs some sort of personality before their voice can work.

 

The author is known by many names.  To Interpol, he is only The Chihuahua.  To librarians, he’s that guy, a possibly mythic figure rumored to have amassed $150 in late fees. He chronicles his observations of his writing, other people’s stories, his general life and possibly some tips for dodging librarians and INTERPOL here.

43 responses so far

43 Responses to “Writing Distinct Character Voices”

  1. steton 31 Aug 2011 at 7:11 am

    Jesus Christ, you’re not even eighteen yet?

    I’ve gotta stop reading this website, it’s depressing.

    (Nice article.)

  2. B. McKenzieon 31 Aug 2011 at 7:26 am

    “I’ve gotta stop reading this website, it’s depressing.” We do what we can! 🙂

  3. Marissaon 31 Aug 2011 at 10:26 am

    Back for a cameo to tell you that it’s shocking how well you read my mind sometimes. The last few days, I’ve been thinking, “Gee, I haven’t read a good post about differentiating characters’ voices in a long time.” Was even considering hunting one down, but voila.

  4. Contra Gloveon 31 Aug 2011 at 10:48 am

    Yes, this definitely applies to my story. I’ll have to go over the manuscript several times to ensure a unique voice for every group in my story. For example, my protagonist and her peers will sound like hicks, while her parents and their peers will use more complex words.

  5. O.R.on 31 Aug 2011 at 12:00 pm

    @stet Well, this site IS mostly about superhero stories and how to write them. Supes don’t usually appeal to older audiences by definition. Don’t expect an aged and sophisticated _erudite_ to visit this sometimes _superfluous_ site looking for writing advice.

    (See what I did there? Eh, eh?) ;D

    Also, great article.

  6. Mynaon 31 Aug 2011 at 12:52 pm

    “…or for a politician to say “sorry.””
    You completely just made my day.

    “(For example, there was one mischievous drill instructor at Parris Island that got up the recruits’ hopes by being super-friendly and lenient for a week before starting with the 3 AM room inspections).”
    SFDGDGKDF I feel sorry for the recruits. (Although they probably should have seen that coming… xD)

    I love messing with character voice, particularly slang and cultural stuff, this article was awesome 🙂

  7. B. McKenzieon 31 Aug 2011 at 1:08 pm

    “it’s shocking how well you read my mind sometimes”–The FBI cannot rule out the possibility that The Chihuahua is psychic. Regular chihuahuas certainly are (it’s the only way they’ve survived as long as they have).

  8. steton 31 Aug 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Hey, I have nothing against you meddling kids. I just wish you were as stupid as I was when I was your age!

    (But I’ll have the last laugh … in 20 years, when you’re doddering around some newfangled wavecast and the kids have to explain to you–again, very patiently–how corneamail works.)

    I keep telling editors that supes _do_ appeal to older (geekier) guys, and we’ve got the money to buy in hardback now, dammit, not like the young pishers with their graffiti novellas, but so far no luck.

  9. B. McKenzieon 31 Aug 2011 at 2:00 pm

    “I keep telling editors that supes _do_ appeal to older (geekier) guys, and we’ve got the money to buy in hardback now, dammit, not like the young pishers with their graffiti novellas, but so far no luck.” Yeah, if the writing is good enough, I think it could work. George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards anthologies and Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay sold pretty well, I think. (I’m not sure on Wild Cards, but I doubt they would have released so many sequels if the books had been tanking).

  10. chihuahua0on 31 Aug 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Thank you for all the comments! The reason why I wrote this article was because this is a topic that I can’t find on the Internet. Character voices aren’t reallly explored beyond slang and dialects.

    While I wrote most of the article, the politician and drill sarg references were added by B. Mac when we were doing edits. However, 95% of the article is me.

    “The FBI cannot rule out the possibility that The Chihuahua is psychic.” Well, at least I’m writing about psychics. Whatever I’m a psychic or not may come to being at the magical age of eighteen.

    (I still find my bio amusing, considering that I’m at a library right now with four books in my lap and at least three more in my backpack).

  11. O.R.on 31 Aug 2011 at 5:05 pm

    @Chihuaha: Run for it, run before they get you!

    No, but seriously, the two years’ headstart I have over you tell me that eighteen is the least psychic you’ll ever get in your lifetime. That, or I’m a friggin’ sociopath with no understandig of human society whatsoever. Oh, well. Oh, and while I’m at it, I find your goal of writing a novel before turning eighteen amusing and somehow exciting. (I’ve heard that most people who get published early in their lives end up despising their first works, but let’s not get into that now). I really hope you can make it.

    @stet: Right you are, sir. Superheroes are in no way restricted to kids or young adults. However, it is harder to convince a more knowledgeable and world-wise adult to read a book about people performing miraculous stunts and saving the world. Or Harry Potter, even. That’s kiddie stuff, goddarnit!

  12. Grenacon 31 Aug 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Pfft, I had that goal when I was in high school as well.

    Then procrastination happened.

    Oh well, maybe it can happen before my **th year of life?

  13. B. McKenzieon 31 Aug 2011 at 7:30 pm

    OH MY GOD THAT IS A LARGE SPIDER ON MY LEG

  14. B. McKenzieon 31 Aug 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Umm, okay. I think I have definitively ruled out that there is a spider-sense.

  15. Wingson 31 Aug 2011 at 8:24 pm

    …Are you alright over there, B. Mac?

    – Wings

  16. Wingson 31 Aug 2011 at 8:28 pm

    I still have that goal. Considering I started the last summer with plans to finish at least one novel and wound up with two overwordy chapters and too many new ideas, I don’t have much hope for the future.

    …And to think some people claim about never getting good ideas to write. Be careful what you wish for, am I right?

    – Wings

  17. O.R.on 31 Aug 2011 at 8:29 pm

    @Grenac: We all did, methinks. At least we know we were on the right path, no?

    @B Mac: Random, much? LOL. I guess you can always hope to wake up with superpowers.

  18. Chihuahua0on 31 Aug 2011 at 8:35 pm

    @BMac: I personally prefer shape-shifting, or force fields. :p

    It’s a good thing I met my goal for the summer: Write a rough draft. My current goal is to get a 2nd draft before November, so I can write a back-up novel for NaNoWriMo. I’m not sure if I can make it, but I am trying to time manage my time better so I might.

    I linked back here on my blog. I’m trying to find what exactly to blog about. So far, I decided to talk about various aspect of the writing process that I encounter, and literary elements in books I finished. What else?

  19. O.R.on 31 Aug 2011 at 8:37 pm

    @Wings: You are absolutely right. That also happens to me. I seem to have the Curse of the Third Chapter and my brain just starts barfing up great new ideas the moment I sit down and write what I already had planned. I believe it has something to do with the mental state you’re into when creating. You just can’t stop. It’s SO frustrating. B. Mac, you should write an article about that. It’d be much appreciated. 🙂

  20. O.R.on 31 Aug 2011 at 8:41 pm

    @Chihuahua: I’d like to read about what every writer your (our) age faces daily–the challenge of managing school, family, friends, and writing. I’d bookmark your blog so hard if you did. It would be awesomely interesting.

  21. Chihuahua0on 31 Aug 2011 at 8:41 pm

    @Wings: For the last few years, I was on that stage. Various attempts to start a novel involved writing to Chapter Two, and then either switching to a new idea, or just losing interest. I have about 25+ semi-developed novel concepts floating around my head with various freshness. I’m thinking of creating a queue document so I’ll know my next project.

  22. Chihuahua0on 31 Aug 2011 at 8:46 pm

    @O.R. Oh, you ninja commenter…but thanks! I think most of the challenge is getting three pages per day. I’ll try to keep note of the things that try to keep me from doing that. For example, no Internet connection (today, I had to steal someone’s wireless), events (“Can I please bring one thing inside?), and my extreme introversion (one of my goals is to make more friends this year). There’s also general stuff like the mid-story sag and plain old writer’s block.

  23. B. McKenzieon 31 Aug 2011 at 9:03 pm

    O.R., I’ll think about whether I can come up with enough material to do an article, but until then, my preliminary thought would be that it might help to move your materials for your other stories away. For example, I have my main project on my desk (i.e. readily accessible at all times) and everything else is in a notebook sandwiched in a closet between fantasy football magazines with Ladainian Tomlinson on the cover. If I get an idea for something else, I’ll jot it down in the notebook and it’ll be there when I’m done with my current project.

    Personally, I would highly recommend against writing chapters for another work that isn’t your main project, unless you’re shelving* or dropping* the main project. However, the more time you’ve put into your main project, the more reluctant I would be to put it aside.

    *Be careful. The first very frequently turns into the second.

  24. O.R.on 31 Aug 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Nice, I’ll try that. Thanks.

  25. Wingson 31 Aug 2011 at 9:28 pm

    In late July, I compiled a list of all my stories at the current time, shelved and active.

    …That list has since grown by at least 5.

    On the bright side, having lots of ideas means only the strong survive. The Darkenverse is my second oldest story, has been shelved numerous times, and is still the flagship of my collection. Over time, it’s clear that most of the stuff that’s been shelved is weaker than the active stuff.

    – Wings

  26. Chihuahua0on 31 Aug 2011 at 9:34 pm

    Ironically, my large attempts at a novel (IE, ones that reach beyond 100 pages) are the newer ones. My first two attempts I started writing the day or night I conceived them. Manifestation Files boiled a little in my mind, but I began it the same month I thought it up. It’s the whole freshness factor, although old project go in excitement cycles. But by keeping a writing folder with me everyday, and focusing on writing this one project everyday, I easily channel my energy into this one project. Hopefully, that’s enough to get me through the next mid-book sag.

    …That was a large de-rail.

    Does anyone have any suggestions or observations about the article? Anything that may help me once I write another one?

  27. Comicbookguy117on 31 Aug 2011 at 9:53 pm

    “Personally, I would highly recommend against writing chapters for another work that isn’t your main project, unless you’re shelving* or dropping* the main project.”

    I can’t work like that. I’m currently developing six different superheroes that will star in their own stories that will eventually turn into a group story. I try to work a little on each every day. Admittedly, I tend to work on one or two more then the others. But I have so many ideas floating around in my head it is hard for me to focus totally on a single project.

    By the way B.Mac I sent you an e-mail I’d like you to check out at your earliest convenience. ok?

  28. Grenacon 31 Aug 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Hahaha, I agree with Comicbookguy, I sometimes have to put aside some works when I get to a “where do I go now?” point and work on something else. Otherwise nothing gets done. But I never work on more than two things at a time.

    Camp NaNo was a good way of committing to my novel WIP enough, but now I’m kind of sick of it. I’m putting it off to develop another story idea that popped up.

    What’s super annoying is doing one and then having another idea pop up in the head and wanting so badly to drop the previous for that.

    My cat is running around like he’s on something, wth?

  29. Marissaon 01 Sep 2011 at 12:51 am

    How else would a chihuahua know precisely which couch or coffee table would be most ideal to lurk under and spring at your Achilles tendon?

  30. Marissaon 01 Sep 2011 at 12:53 am

    …In response to a chihuahua being psychic. Late to the party it seems.

  31. B. McKenzieon 01 Sep 2011 at 8:53 am

    “But I have so many ideas floating around in my head it is hard for me to focus totally on a single project.” Has that been successful? Are you satisfied with your rate of progress?

    PS: Thanks for your email–I’ve responded.

  32. Comicbookguy117on 01 Sep 2011 at 10:13 am

    Actually yes. I’ve been steadily developing my ideas. Some more than others, but yes overall I am satisfied.

  33. […] POV requires characters—each with their own unique voice. Superhero Nation breaks down the keys to writing distinct character voices, and Steven James explains how to manage status to increase the depth and dimension of your […]

  34. Wingson 01 Sep 2011 at 4:01 pm

    To get back on topic, I’m planning an experimental short story which relies completely on dialogue; so keeping my protagonists’ voices distinct is especially important. Therefore, this article was released at a perfect time.

    – Wings

  35. Danion 03 Sep 2011 at 10:29 am

    Very nice article. 🙂 I know in my real life I have one of those Southern drawls so I have to be careful when editing otherwise those y’alls and other things pop up. A novel before 18 goal is not bad. Keep writing even when your characters are “blocked“. You just might be surprised the way they take you.

  36. […] Writing Distinct Character Voices: Another grand piece of advice about how to make your characters different from one another. […]

  37. Chihuahua0on 30 Mar 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Even now, I still receive one or two hits from this one post. It’s my biggest early accomplishment as a blogger. One day, I’ll consider doing a rewrite and an overhaul, and going more in-depth with a post that has more…diversity to it. How do you think I would use a chart for this?

    So, does anyone have any further questions?

  38. B. McKenzieon 30 Mar 2012 at 11:18 pm

    “How do you think I would use a chart for this?” Maybe do a survey of people that have read a particular work or seen a particular movie and test them on (say) 20 different lines (or paragraphs). See if they can guess which character actually delivered each line. Then compare results for (say) 5 or 10 different works. Which ones did the best and what do you think was more effective about how those characters were voiced?

    Also, it may be interesting to compare heroes in similar roles. For example, if you gave 20 random lines by a few random Disney princess, it would be pretty much impossible to tell them apart because they have so few unique traits. However, if you did the same with (say) a few cop characters, I think it’d probably be significantly easier to match up the lines with the characters that spoke them.

    Another possibility would be directly comparing two quotes (or two snippets of conversation) where the characters are talking about similar things but one movie or book handles it much better. Which snippet is more interesting and why?

    Another possibility would be taking a scene from a movie or book and using either screen shots or art to illustrate it… but for whatever reason it’s so dark that we can’t see who’s speaking. If you turn off the lights in a comic book, you should still be able to tell who’s delivering most of the lines if the characters sound different enough. For example, in this scene, I think it’s pretty easy to guess which line is being delivered by an accountant and which is delivered by his partner (a paramilitary mutant alligator), even though we can’t see who is speaking.

  39. […] Check out this site, too. November 13, 2012 in Bronx Masquerade […]

  40. […] http://www.superheronation.com/2011/08/31/writing-distinct-character-voices/ […]

  41. […] always seem to sound like each other? Here is a great article from Superhero Nation about Writing Distinct Character Voices. They believe that keeping the following factors in mind make your characters’ voices diverse […]

  42. […] Writing Distinct Character Voices: Another grand piece of advice about how to make your characters different from one another. […]

  43. Voice | English & Creative Writingon 28 Aug 2014 at 8:19 am

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