Aug 31 2011
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.