“Voice” is one of the things we authors agonize over—finding the character’s unique and authentic way of speaking. It’s especially critical to get this right when we’re writing in multiple viewpoints, so each character sounds like him or herself and readers can tell the difference between them. Liam Carnahan is here today to share some techniques for differentiating between your characters’ voices.
Writing engaging and realistic dialogue is hard enough on its own. When your novel or story has multiple characters, it’s an even bigger challenge—you have to give each character his or her own voice as well.
Without unique voices, conversations between characters can confuse your readers, and you’ll have to be overly reliant on dialogue tags to keep everything straight. Fortunately, there are a few methods you can use to make each character’s words and interior monologues sound unique.
Who (and What) Influenced Your Character?
To understand how your character speaks, go to the source. Who were the significant people in his life when he learned his first language? Parents and guardians are almost always the first influencers, with extended family, school teachers, and fellow children all contributing to a character’s language development. There are always exceptions to these rules, but unless your character does not speak, he had to learn his words from somewhere.
As we grow, the people in our lives impact our language. Researchers have found that people in close personal relationships will begin to mimic each other’s speaking patterns. Romantic partners, family members, and close friends may share the same verbal quirks—and in this case, making two characters speak in a similar fashion can be a way to underscore their closeness.
However, because each of your characters has unique experiences and histories, consider what other threads might be part of their linguistic tapestry. Culture, heritage, geographic location, and educational background are prime examples of other external factors that should impact how a character speaks. If your characters live in the United States, map resources like this can be a good way to understand how people from different parts of the country talk.
Consider making a list of the people, places, and histories that would have influenced each of your protagonists, particularly in their formative years. Comparing these lists side by side will help you understand how each character differs from the others.
What’s Your Character’s Personality?
Personality dictates tone. Language is in every way a form of expression, and how a person speaks is a reflection of who they are at their core. Your characters may all speak the same language, but their vocabulary, cadence, and manner of speaking are determined by their personalities.
There are a few traits that can help you decide how a character should speak. Ask yourself, is your character more…
Introverted or extroverted? If a character feels energized by conversation, she’ll speak more often and might use longer sentences. A character who prefers to be alone or in small groups might speak less often, with more pauses for consideration and internal monologue.
Pessimistic or optimistic? Your character’s outlook on life will impact her word choices and possibly her speed of speech. Are they cynically sarcastic? Are they cheerfully positive?
Serious or silly? How often does your character crack jokes? How often does she laugh at other people’s jokes? Does she have her head in the clouds, or are her feet always planted squarely on the ground? Humor and playfulness manifest themselves in words as much as in actions.
Honest or coy? Does your character tell it like it is, or is she more likely to withhold information and opinions? When she speaks the truth, is she blunt or gentle? Is she a practiced liar?
Of course, realistic characters will have a spectrum and range of emotions, but exploring questions like these can nudge dialogue in the right direction.
On Dialects and Accents
Dialect and accents of course influence how an individual speaks, but a word of caution: overdoing it with what’s known as “eye dialect” can turn into a big issue for some writers.
“Eye dialect” is when an author intentionally misspells words to make them representative of the way they sound. For example, writing the word “was” as “wuz” or “listen” as “lissen.” Many well-known authors, from Mark Twain to Terry Pratchett, have used eye dialect in their work.
The issue, however, is that it’s very easy for this to come off as stereotypical or even mocking, particularly when it’s associated with a racial or national background. If your book takes place in modern times, eye dialect also tends to make a character’s way of speaking seem dated, which may or may not be an intentional side effect.
As an alternative, consider taking a few moments to describe a character’s accent when they speak. For example:
“The voice was careful, masculine, and local;
the vowels had all the edges sanded off.”
(The Raven Boys, Stiefvater)
Use narrative description to reflect on the sound of their words, or let your characters reflect on each other’s way of talking. This is a much safer (and often more accurate) way of showing a character’s mannerisms when speaking.
Examining your characters’ backgrounds and personalities can help you build uniqueness into their voices. Coupled with character traits and individual descriptions, your cast of characters will make your novel worth reading.
Liam Carnahan is the founder and chief editor of Invisible Ink Editing. With four other professional editors on staff, Invisible Ink Editing offers a variety of book editing services for fiction authors. Liam can be reached at Liam@InvisibleInkEditing.com, or you can connect with Invisible Ink Editing on Facebook or Twitter.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.